The Olympics: Where Every Second Counts
9.63 seconds – the Olympic Record is broken by Usain Bolt at The Olympic Stadium, London in 2012. In an era where records are shattered or narrowly missed by minuscule margins, we often assume millisecond-level precision in timekeeping, especially at the grandest of global sporting events. Nevertheless, this level of accuracy wasn't always the norm.
Development of Olympic Timekeeping
In contrast to the present-day where electronic timekeeping processes are universally considered accurate, early editions of the Olympic Games grappled with a rather challenging timekeeping scenario. Measuring this important aspect of a race was predominantly reliant on a singular timepiece - the stopwatch. This led to a multitude of consistency discrepancies due to the diverse array of stopwatch brands and models utilised by various judges.
Striving for greater precision, timekeeping the 1896 Olympic marathon event evolved into a sporting event in its own right; the individual stopwatch responsible for commencing timing at the starting line needed to be sent to the finish line via bicycle to record the winning time.
Confronted with mounting allegations of inequity and a dearth of consistency, the IOC opted to embark on a journey toward establishing uniformity in timekeeping. Consequently, Heuer was entrusted with the duty of crafting a stopwatch to be employed across all events at The Games and used by every timekeeper.
The Heuer Mikrograph Stopwatch
In 1916, Heuer successfully secured a patent for the Mikrograph, a ground-breaking time-keeping stopwatch. This innovation was a trailblazer of its era, being the inaugural mechanical stopwatch globally acknowledged for its capability to achieve accuracy down to a thousandth of a second; its predecessors were merely able to attain precision within approximately a fifth of a second.
The Heuer Mikrograph was first used at the Olympics in Belgium in 1920, after the 1916 version of the Olympics was cancelled due to the First World War. The increase in accuracy was immediately evident and the IOC used the Mikrograph at the next two versions of The Games in Paris 1924 and Amsterdam in 1928.
Omega Continue The Race
In 1932, Heuer’s time as the official stopwatch manufacturer was over when Omega marked its inaugural presence in Los Angeles. The new method to tackle inaccuracy was a single watch technician operating thirty stopwatches to manage the timing of 117 events. Although the task seemed daunting, Omega readily embraced the challenge and timed all disciplines in Los Angeles that year with chronographs which were accurate to the nearest tenth of a second and had a split-seconds complication to better facilitate the timing of laps.
The First Photo Finish
At the same time as Omega took charge of timing at the 1932 Olympics, a new technological advancement made its debut: the Chronocinema. This device operated as a camera capable of recording time with precision down to a hundredth of a second, surpassing the capabilities of Omega chronographs. However, it came with a caveat—the film development process required hours before reaching a conclusive outcome, if needed.
Despite this, the Chronocinema proved its worth in 1936 by resolving the contentious finish of the 100 metres final. While Omega chronographs registered Ralph Metcalfe and Thomas Tolan with a time of 10.3 seconds each, the human eye favoured Metcalfe's seemingly marginal lead. Yet, the Chronocinema unveiled the fallibility of human perception, revealing Tolan as the true victor, with his torso crossing the finish line first.
The Electronic Age
In 1948, electronic timekeeping emerged. During this time, machinery gradually assumed the role once held by human operators, as the latter were susceptible to errors. The 1948 Olympic Games were marked by the introduction of two notable technological innovations: Omega's "Magic Eye" photoelectric cells and the slit photo finish camera developed by the British Race Finish Recording Company. The former utilised a delicate light beam to accurately record times down to the nearest hundredth of a second as athletes crossed the finish line. Meanwhile, the latter provided judges with an unequivocal visual record of the precise sequence in which athletes completed the race.
As of 2023, early stopwatches created by Heuer and Omega are now regarded more for their aesthetic appeal than as functional tools for timing sports events. Nonetheless, their profound legacy in Olympic timekeeping remains etched in history.