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Mexico City 1968

For the first time in the history of the Olympic Games, electronic timekeeping was officially used in all sports in Mexico City. Swimming events featured “touch pads”, introduced by OMEGA to record the times athletes touched the wall. The confidence in electronic timekeeping eliminated the need for the 24 timekeepers – used only for checking purposes – during the Athletics events.

STORY

Bob Beamon's leap into the next century

As the storm showers paused for a few moments, Bob Beamon completed a perfectly measured run-up, finding the take-off board with the precision of an electronically controlled machine. His ground speed and his fantastic leap meant that he reached an extraordinary height, while at the same time his legs, which seemed interminably long, moved as if he was running.

Beamon flew in mid-air for a split second longer than normal. He pushed his legs forwards extremely late and touched the floor way beyond the area covered by the optical measuring device. This caused a few problems for the judges. There was an unusual gathering of red jackets around the long-jump pit.

The distance was re-measured several times just to be sure. but in the end, there was no option but to accept the facts. As the most incredible record of these Olympic Games and possibly of the history of athletics – 8.90 m – shone out on the scoreboard, a shriek resounded across all the stands.

"We journalists sat incredulous at our typewriters. We thought we must be dreaming. Or was it a mistake? No, the figures had to be true: Beamon had broken the world record by 55 cm."

This is how, in his book "La fabuleuse histoire des Jeux Olympiques", Robert Parienté described the world record that grabbed most of the headlines at the 1968 Olympic Games. In the thin Mexico City air, 31 world records were broken, including 14 in athletics alone. The altitude was as beneficial to the sprinters and jumpers as the often muggy, stormy weather and a wind which - remarkably - was frequently measured at precisely the maximum permissible speed of 2.0 m/sec – including for Beamon’s "leap into the next century". Although the 8.90 m world record did not last until the next century – it did not even last for 23 years – it still stands as the Olympic record.

All the amazing world records set in Mexico were achieved by black Americans, some of whom used the Games for civil rights demonstrations. 200 m Olympic champion Tommie Smith and John Carlos (bronze medallist) even had to leave the Olympic village after protesting by raising black-gloved fists to the sky on the medal podium.

The endurance athletes were unable to cope with the altitude to the extent that they can today. Mexico was a turning point for African long-distance runners, but a disaster for athletes like Ron Clarke. The Australian, who had set 17 world records in his long career, had only ever managed one Olympic bronze medal (10,000 m in 1964). In Mexico, he finished sixth in the 10,000 m before collapsing and receiving artificial respiration for 20 minutes. Years later he had to undergo heart surgery, which he considered as being a result of this incident. Emil Zatopek consoled him by giving him one of his gold medals. The 10,000 m race also created some difficult challenges for the timekeepers, as there were no heats and 37 runners started the race. "It was an infernal merry-go-round," said OMEGA team manager Charles Sickert. Some runners were lapped three times by Olympic champion Naftali Temu (KEN).

TECHNOLOGY

Gold medal for photosprint and touch pads

In 1968, twenty years after the photoelectric cells had been introduced at the Olympic Games, timekeeping was exclusively electronic. In fact, electronic times had first been accepted as official at the Rome 1960 edition of the Games. Forty-five timekeepers were sent to Mexico City, along with eight tonnes of equipment, worth approximately CHF 4 million. The OMEGA Photosprint, which had been developed a few years earlier (1963), was used in the athletics events, filming all runners as they crossed the finish line. The camera was equipped with a tiny vertical opening and the film with a time strip. Time - the fourth dimension - was therefore linked with photography and modern sports timekeeping was born. Since the Photosprint could deliver developed pictures in 30 seconds, those responsible for the athletics events decided to take the plunge and use automated timekeeping. In order to compensate somewhat for the anticipated lengthening of times due to the loss of the reaction time of the manual timekeepers, an additional 0.05 seconds was taken off athletes’ times. Subsequent investigations in fact showed that runners in the 100 m had in fact lost 0.24 seconds as a result of electronic timekeeping. This was the average reaction time that timekeepers needed to press the stopwatch button after the smoke from the starting pistol became visible. Under pressure from television, the manual timekeepers who were still employed as a back-up in Mexico City disappeared from the trackside. Their help was never required. The photofinish camera filmed world records in 10 running events at the 2248 m altitude Estadio Olimpico.

In the swimming pool the OMEGA touch pads, 90 cm high, 240 cm wide and with twothirds of their surface immersed in the water, were used for the first time. They reacted to the slightest of touches from the swimmer’s hand but not to the movement of the water. Competitors therefore stopped the watch with their own hands, as it were. These pads had been successfully tested out with the USA’s support at the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg in 1967. Another innovation was the link-up between the starting pistol, the loudspeaker and the start signal. The Swim-O-Matic, successor of the Swim Eight-O-Matic, was accurate to the nearest 1/1000th of a second, which finally meant that disputes between timekeepers and finish judges were a thing of the past. However, despite electronic timekeeping, athletics and swimming world records were, for the time being, still recorded to the nearest 1/10th of a second.

No fewer than 52 scoreboards were installed, the main one in the Estadio Olimpico measuring 30 x 8 m. It was the world’s largest electronic scoreboard at the time, for the constantly expanding Olympic Games.

Despite numerous conflicts – the suppression of the Prague Spring, cultural revolution in China, civil rights battles in the USA, student unrest in France, Mexico, etc. – and the altitude, it was the first time that more than 100 countries (112) had participated, represented by 5,530 athletes. It was not just the athletes’ performances that were rewarded: OMEGA was also presented with a gold medal by the Organising Committee.

It was the only gold medal that Switzerland won at the Games, since the best Swiss performance was second place by 66-year-old sailor Louis Noverraz.


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