When a tenth or a thousandth of a second can make or break a career, timing is everything. Ever since the first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens in 1896, time measurement has been the pivot around which the event turns. It’s a serious job for serious timekeepers.
A few watch brands have taken on the task in the hundred-odd years of the event’s history. Swiss motorsports timer Heuer (it acquired the TAG prefix in 1985) was a natural partner in the 1920s, while Seiko has also been timekeeper for several Games. But it is the Biel based brand Omega that has had the most consistent link, and London 2012 marks its 25th outing as Official Timekeeper.
It’s no mere brand-endorsement exercise, either: the pursuit of ever more precise timing is what makes the watch world tick, but the Official Timekeeper is under scrutiny to develop equipment that is not just up to the job but that is better at it. Hence, affiliated watch companies have always poured huge resources into sports-timing technology.
And, because Omega has presided over a century of change - when stopwatch holders at the touchline reluctantly gave way to electronic timers then digital methods – the company’s role as a technology pioneer is pretty impressive. Its engineers have spent decades developing kit that is not only elegantly designed – so as not to impede audience views of athletes crossing the finishing lines – but that performs and concurs with the demands of athletes, officials and the millions of people who watch the Olympic Games on television.
Take the Omegascope, which launched in 1961. By enabling live running times to be relayed on television for the first time, it directly engaged audiences, enhancing viewer experience, making broadcasting history while it was at it.
Naturally, Olympics timekeeping is computer-based now, but Omega continues to accelerate change, propelling the future of sporting performance along with it. Practising swimmers at Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre in east London were recently asked whether improvements in Omega’s touch-pad technology – a system that responds to a swimmer’s touch but not the movement of the water – would pass muster.
Here, as part of our inaugural Sports Special (out now), we chart Omega's unbeatable track record of Olympic timing inventions, from the 1920s up to the impending 2012 London games.