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St. Moritz 1948

After a 12-year gap, the world’s athletes met again to compete and it became clear that the long interruption of the war years had done nothing to dampen the fascination of the Olympic Games. Although Germany and Japan were excluded, there were record numbers of participants both in St. Moritz in the winter and then in London in the summer.

TECHNOLOGY

Experts make lasting impression

At the 1948 Olympic Winter Games in St. Moritz, OMEGA used photoelectric cells for the first time and set another precedent by sending its own experts as well as the timing devices themselves. The five-man OMEGA team worked during the Games in a converted Chevrolet, which had been equipped with special shock absorbers in order to protect the sensitive gadgets and on whose roof the words “OMEGA OLYMPIC TIMING” were written. A modest advertisement if ever there was one. The equipment could withstand temperatures from plus 20 to minus 20 degrees and made an impression not only on the popular West Swiss radio reporter Marcel Suès, alias Squibbs, who said in a report: “The timekeeping was excellent and a great credit to the Swiss watch industry and watch-making, which had saddled itself with a tremendous amount of responsibility.” Although the crowds had remained very small, the Games were televised across national borders for the first time by the BBC and three American broadcasters.

TECHNOLOGY

"Magic eye" revolutionises timekeeping

The Second World War was barely over when the emergence of the photoelectric timing marked the dawn of a new era. In 1945, a three-man OMEGA team built the first mobile, autonomous photo cell, which could withstand large temperature variations. Used in conjunction with a new slit-technology photofinish camera in 1948, the two complementary technologies – the "Magic Eye" photoelectric cell and the photofinish camera with slit technology – ushered in the era of modern sports timekeeping.

An OMEGA document from the time explains: “This new device replaces the limited sight capabilities of the naked eye with a highly sensitive photo cell, while human reflexes are replaced by a lightning fast electrical current. The principle is based on the use of a beam of light which is projected along the finishing line and back again. As soon as a runner interrupts the beam by crossing it, the stopwatches are triggered. Since all the functions are electronic, the level of accuracy is such that times could be given to the nearest 1/1000th of a second. This surpasses by far all previous devices. Thanks to the photo cell, all the special equipment such as the finishing tape and hydropneumatic tube can be dispensed with.”

The Muybridge wire, which had been stretched across the finishing line and used to time races for the first time at the US athletics championships in 1891, was no longer necessary. The clock would stop when the wire was broken, since the wire was connected to a mechanical stopwatch. The finishing tape was still used for a while for reasons of nostalgia.

ANECDOTE

Greengrocer among the aristocrats

The skeleton or toboggan, as the British had originally called it, made a return to the Olympic programme after a 20-year absence. This was not by chance, since the 1928 Olympic Winter Games had also been held in St. Moritz and this sport had so far only been practised in the Engadin – on the Cresta Run - by the British St. Moritz Tobogganing Club (SMTC). The Cresta Run had first been built in 1884/85, with ten bends and stretching from the “Leaning Tower” of St. Moritz over more than 1,200 m down to Celerina. The exclusive club had been founded two years later and, for many years, it was the domain of aristocrats and the well-to-do. The American Jennison Heaton became the first Olympic skeleton champion and his brother John R. Heaton finished second.

John R. Heaton, who lived in Paris, also competed in 1948, when he again finished as runner- up. After six runs, he was 1.4 seconds behind Nino Bibbia (born 15 March 1922), who won Italy’s first gold medal at the Olympic Winter Games, but was considered a local. Born in the nearby province of Sondrio, he had grown up in St. Moritz, where his father ran a greengrocer’s shop, and his best friend was Edy Reinalter, the 1948 Olympic slalom champion. Having originally been selected only as a bob pilot, the multi-talented sportsman – he also played in the top division of the Swiss ice hockey league for EHC St. Moritz, for example – raced face down along the Cresta Run for the first time in December 1947. He went so fast that he was called up for the skeleton competition.

Sandwiched between a sixth-place finish in the two-man bob and eighth place in the four-man event, Bibbia won gold in the skeleton competition. He achieved 231 victories in his career. He was the master of this terrifying course for three decades and did not hang up his old toboggan until the year 2000! “There were always two inches between my outer runner and the track wall”, he says. To commemorate the SMTC’s two Olympic champions, a Nino Bibbia Challenge Cup and a Heaton Gold Cup are held in St. Moritz each year. In 2006, Bibbia was invited to the Olympic Winter Games as a guest of honour. Turn 10 of the Olympic track in Cesana Pariol is named after him.


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