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What does it take to time the Olympics?

Mantle talks to Alain Zobrist, CEO of Omega Timing, about how new technology will shape the way we see athletics.

With the opening ceremonies being held in just a few hours, the Olympics is finally pushing through in Tokyo. By now, athletes from all over the world will have started competing in 28 sports, each one hoping to earn a spot at the podium. And this year, Omega is looking to make its mark in the games and earn another place in history as well.

Omega is the official timekeeper of the Olympics, and has been since the Los Angeles Summer Olympics in 1932. Back then, it sent a lone watchmaker from their offices in Switzerland, and with him came 30 stopwatches: each one equipped with a split-seconds chronograph. These chronographs could time two separate events at once, and were about as sophisticated as chronographs could get at the time. They were then used as the official timepieces for the 1932 games.

Omega’s long-standing association with the Olympics has seen multiple innovations, complications, and limited editions. This time around won’t be any different, and the house is bringing out a few new technologies to use in Tokyo.  

“It’s going to be a milestone for us as a timekeeper,” says Alain Zobrist, the CEO of Omega Timing.

As head of Omega Timing,  Zobrist oversees the development of the technology that gets used in the games, and it’s come a long way since the stopwatches of 1932. These days, it involves far more sophisticated equipment.  Because in an arena as competitive and potentially life-changing as the Olympics, every fraction of a second counts.

Alain Zobrist, CEO of Omega Timing.
Photo: Omega

For Tokyo, it’s going to take 900 trained volunteers, 530 timekeepers and professionals, 85 public scoreboards, 350 specialized scoreboards, and 200 kilometers of cables and wiring—all told, with 400 tons of equipment in tow.

It’s a massive undertaking, and these numbers only give you a glance at what it means to be the official timekeeper. What it actually means, though, is that much of the work is done far ahead of the Olympics: in the workshops and laboratories that Zobrist leads. And for the current games,  they’re bringing  motion sensors and positioning systems that will change the way we understand athletics. 

“What these technologies will do will give us a clear and detailed understanding of an athlete’s performance from the start to the finish,” Zobrist.  “It will be able to tell us when an athlete gained or lost time.”

These new systems aren’t simply going to record the time it takes for, say, a runner to reach the finish line. It can record how high a horse jumps in an equestrian event, track how a cyclist takes a corner, or even monitor team formations in hockey and see how the winners (and the rest of the competitors) earned their performances. 

“All of this information will really change the way we perceive athletes. It’s going to explain how the athletes got the results.” 

This is technology that could potentially be groundbreaking for the athletes themselves. Because understanding how they got their results could help lead to better ones in the future, and this means the applications could go well beyond the Olympics.

It’s the product of a long, continuous effort, and Zobrist mentions that Omega has involved athletes and federations in its development, to better understand what they need. 

“These motion sensors and positioning systems are really a true innovation and are a revolution in itself, and it’s going to mark history,” Zobrist says. 

And he’s likely right. Omega has been part of human history before. Most notably, when the Speedmaster became the first watch on the moon, and when it helped save a NASA mission from disaster. Its efforts in the Olympics, and how we can now further understand human movement, could just rank alongside these feats. 

Still, even with the new equipment hitting the fields in Tokyo, Zobrist holds a particular fascination for the one piece of technology that started it all. The one that needed no wires or microchips, but ran on gears and springs and bits of metal instead.

“The chronographs that were used in 1932 by one watchmaker at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles: to me this chronograph was a tremendous piece of technology and a great achievement already. To me, that chronograph was the queen or the king of all our devices that we ever developed. And I wish I would have been part of the team back then.”

Some of these antique timepieces still exist, kept in the museum at Omega’s headquarters in Bienne, a town in the canton of Bern in Switzerland. 

“All of them are still functioning,” Zobrist says. ”They age very nicely.”

And while Zobrist may have missed the boat at using these chronographs at the Olympics in 1932, what he’s doing right now is what Omega has since become known for: becoming part of history.

Catch how Omega as it joins the Tokyo Olympics in the video below: