OMEGA’s association with swimming dates back to the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, where the Swiss luxury watchmaker became the first company to be entrusted with the official timekeeping of all Olympic disciplines, including all of the swimming competitions. At the time, 30 stopwatches (split-second chronographs) were sufficient to time all of the events. Today, timing and delivery of competition results has become a much more complex affair, requiring hundreds of tonnes of specialised equipment and a growing number of timekeeping specialists at each successive Olympic Games. OMEGA’s performance in Los Angeles led the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to renew its partnership with the firm repeatedly in the course of the decades to come: The Beijing 2008 Olympic Games will be OMEGA’s 23rd as Official Timekeeper.
Over the years, the Swiss watchmaker has invested heavily in the development and continuous innovation of sports timekeeping and measurement systems. Through dedicated research and the application of its unparalleled experience and technology, OMEGA has consistently reduced the possibilities for human error while increasing the precision of recording and measurement systems and the reliability of competition results. Today, all the athletes at international sports championships and the Olympic Games count on OMEGA to provide consistently accurate, precise and incontestable results, so that they themselves can concentrate on their own performance.
OMEGA’s history of innovation in sports timekeeping for swimming
Most of the timekeeping technology deployed in swimming competitions is focused on the start and the finish—the starting blocks and the touch pads at the finish—, although one should not neglect the timing systems and displays, data handling and distribution of results. Below are a number of points marking the development of the OMEGA timing systems now used to secure results in swimming competitions.
• Prior to the development of electronic timekeeping, swimmers waited to hear the starter’s pistol shot before leaping into the pool; the timekeepers waited to see the smoke before pressing their stopwatch pushers to begin recording the swimmers’ times. The interval between the sound of the pistol and the response of the swimmers and timekeepers is known as their “reaction time”.
• The Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games saw the introduction to Olympic competition of the world’s first semi-automatic swimming timer, the Swim Eight-O-Matic Timer. An electronic signal and loudspeakers placed behind each swimmer’s starting blocks ensured that each swimmer heard the start signal triggered by the Timer at precisely the same time. While the start was thus automated, the system remained “semi-automatic” because finishes were still timed by individual timekeepers; three were posted at the end of each of the eight lanes, each armed with his own stopwatch. Thus, at each race,
twenty-four timekeepers crowded the finish, determined to stop the time the instant a swimmer touched the wall.
• Fully-automated timing became possible with the development of OMEGA “contact pads” which enabled each swimmer to stop the clock him-herself. First tested for international competition at the Pan-American games in Winnipeg in 1967, the touch pads are 90 cm high, 240 cm wide and 1 cm thick. Mounted at the end of each lane with two-thirds of their surface submerged in the water, the pads react to the slightest touch from the swimmer’s hand, but not to the splashing of water. The new technology solved numerous problems and brought an end to debates over swimmers' finishing positions. OMEGA touch pads were first introduced to the Olympic Games in 1968 in Mexico City.
• The next generation of the Swim-O-Matic timer was introduced in 1973, featuring a modular design with racks fitted in a central cupboard, a separate control desk and an independent display.
• 1975 brought a number of innovations in timing for swimming events:
- A high-speed video system capable of recording and displaying highly asynchronous events such as the finish in a swimming competition. The real-time image corresponding to the automatic timing produced by this system made it possible to check relay handovers;
- Sensors in the starting blocks, touch pads in the pool and electronic timers were linked, extending false-start detection and permitting even closer monitoring of relay handovers;
- Touch pad technology was upgraded through the use of vertical grooves that act as a breakwater, and a “water interface” allowing the contact pads to continue to function even if water reaches the electric contact points;
- The OMEGA Game-O-Matic (OGM) control desk combined chronograph, chronometer and scoreboard technology to allow electronic timing and scorekeeping of indoor and aquatic sports using some twenty different programs.
• In 1977 at the European Swimming Championships in Jönköping, Sweden, OMEGA introduced the Swim-O-Matic, the first chronometer briefcase for swimming trials. It weighed only 1.2 kilos and was thus easy to transport and install, especially compared to its 150-kilo predecessor, used at the 1976 Olympic Games.
• At the FINA World Swimming Championships in Berlin in 1978, OMEGA incorporated a data processing unit in its swimming timing installation. The system grouped together all of the elements required for automatic timekeeping: acoustic sensors (starting gun), mechanical sensors (starting blocks and contact pads), optical sensors (video cameras) and electronic counters that print the time in lane or finish order.
• In 1995, OMEGA combined timekeeping with information technology, introducing ARES, the Automatic Recording Evaluation System combining a “black box” chronograph unit that captures and prints times from sensors in the pool with a computer that can process the data and make it available to the outside world without compromising the security of the black box. The system was first used in the swimming competitions at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
• In 2000, OMEGA lead the move to bring results from sports competitions to the Internet, launching live timing at the European Swimming Championships in Helsinki that year. The system allows anyone with Internet access to follow the action live, even where the events are not broadcast. Results from each competition are posted to the site a mere 15 seconds after the winner triggers the OMEGA touch pad at the finish. The site also hosts start lists and a comprehensive archive of results from 2000 through to the present: www.omegatiming.com.
• 2002 began to present results to broadcast media in a new graphic format, making it easier for viewers to follow the performance of the athletes.
• For the Commonwealth Games 2006 in Melbourne, OMEGA presented its new Commentator Information System (CIS), whose networked servers allowed each commentator to follow the results from each of the aquatics competitions simultaneously.
The Swiss luxury watch manufacturer OMEGA was founded in 1848 and has since set the pace in the many fields of watchmaking. OMEGA will be Official Timekeeper at a wide range of sports competitions, including the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games and the London 2012 Olympic Games. Beijing 2008 is OMEGA’s 23rd Olympic Games as Official Timekeeper.