One of the most iconic images in sports history is of Usain Bolt crouching next to an electronic screen at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, pointing to his world record of 9.58 seconds in the 100 meters at the World Championships. athletics world of 2009.
Of all the technological developments that have transformed the sport over the past century, whether pushing performance, improving broadcasts or revolutionizing operations, few are as fundamentally important as scoring and timing.
Reliable, accurate and efficient timing and scoring systems are essential to maintaining the integrity of sport, enhancing the spectator experience and validating the world records and personal bests that elite athletes strive to achieve. .
It’s a hotly contested space with Rolex, Tissot and Tag Heuer, companies better known for their watches and timepieces than their sporting innovations, but all of which have partnerships with top sporting organizations like the Grand Slam of tennis. of Wimbledon, the International Ski Federation (FIS) and English Premier League football. Eagle-eyed readers will note that Bolt’s record was measured by Seiko.
Usain Bolt celebrates his 100 meter world record at the 2009 World Championships in Athletics in Berlin
A century-old partnership
Omega’s relationship with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is arguably the most famous of all and a perfect example of a symbiotic technology partnership. The IOC receives essential technology for its events, while Omega accesses a high-level platform that promotes its products to consumers and its services to sports federations and competitions.
The Beijing Winter Olympics earlier this year were no exception. In addition to its timing and scoring capabilities, Omega also showcased technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics that deepen engagement and drive efficiencies for organizers. This information is also made available to coaches and athletes so that they can realize the Olympic ideals of “faster, higher, stronger” and push the boundaries of sport even further.
“Omega’s history with the Olympics dates back to the 1932 Games in Los Angeles when we were selected to supply 30 stopwatches to provide [official] results to athletes,” said Alain Zobrist, general manager of Olympic timekeeping at Omega. SportsPro. “A watchmaker went all the way to the United States with 30 chronographs in a suitcase and here we are 90 years later where 300 timekeepers deploy 200 tons of equipment and a lot of technology that no longer goes through chronometers.
“We have introduced many groundbreaking innovations over the years, starting with the birth of electronic timing in the late 1940s to the touchpads that were introduced for swimming in Tokyo in 1968.
“Every sport is different. They have different rules and different environments in which they are performed, so we need different sets of equipment and different skills in our timekeepers. Some of these sports are measured in thousandths of a second and are subject to the rules of their federations.We have our equipment and can measure down to the millionth of a second and we calibrate it according to the needs of each sport.
For the 30th time since 1932, OMEGA fulfills the role of Official Timekeeper. Follow the winter action at Beijing 2022, as we measure the Olympic Games on snow and ice.
— OMEGA (@omegawatches) January 31, 2022
Like other Olympic Partners, Omega’s preparation for each Games begins several years before the torch is lit at the Opening Ceremony. Everyone involved must understand the process and maximize the benefits of the technology involved.
“It’s really about teamwork with all those stakeholders, including our timekeepers who have to work with the equipment on a daily basis,” says Zobrist. “Our engineers obviously have a lot of feedback that we can eventually incorporate into the technology. It’s an ecosystem that works quite well, adapted to the different sports and federations, and which anticipates their needs for the future.
“[We get involved] about three years before the opening ceremony, so very early. We participate in the construction [or configuration] of sites, as we want to ensure that the infrastructure is there to enable us to deliver our services. We need to know the size of the venues and the layouts to deploy our raceways, so all of that needs to be taken into consideration, so we are working closely with the Organizing Committee and the IOC.
“We are heavily involved in the test events about a year in advance so that we can come with our timekeepers and our equipment to get to know the different venues. Then we arrive about ten days before the opening ceremony, and everything is ready for the first competition.
An Omega dashboard informs fans and athletes at the event about the current state of the game
Unique Winter Olympics
The Winter Olympics is smaller in both scale and global appeal than the summer edition, but it is nonetheless a huge sporting event that attracts huge viewers from around the world. worldwide and attracts the attention of the general public in countries such as Austria, Switzerland and Norway. It’s also popular in the United States, the world’s largest sports media market, and the convergence of traditional sports and extreme sports happened much earlier in the Winter Games, giving it a leg up. advance to attract the young population that the IOC aspires to. .
Then there’s a large audience that might be interested in the sport and big events but don’t have a deep understanding of the nuances of alpine skiing, the technique of figure skating, or the judging process of snowboarding. Others simply marvel at the sight of a human hurtling headlong down an icy track with seemingly little regard for personal safety. In the UK, curling has traditionally captured the national interest.
The technology can enhance the viewing experience for winter sports enthusiasts and those who have a brief four-year adventure with snow and ice. This can take the form of on-screen graphics or information that can be passed on to commentators or social media.
A close relationship with Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) is therefore essential. Omega has an end-to-end approach to service delivery, which includes devices and software that formats and transmits data in real time. The company even has its own output system for creating TV graphics and has around 100 graphics generators with associated TV commentaries. This includes many graphics displayed on the screen, such as results, start lists, infographics or even fault indicators.
“Everything is provided by us – even the weather animation or the animation of the course [before the event]notes Zobrist.
One of the most high-profile innovations introduced in Beijing has been the use of AI in figure skating – a discipline that is attracting considerable interest in key markets like the United States and an event that has been the subject of a lot of attention for various reasons during the Games.
Six AI cameras equipped with computer vision algorithms capable of detecting certain events and analyzing them were deployed around the rink to follow each athlete during their routines. The information was used to create reports that can improve performance and provide additional information for TV shows.
“This [system] gives us their trajectories and heatmaps so that we can provide detailed analysis of their jumps, heights, speeds, distances, rotations in real time to broadcasters,” says Zobrist. “This data is also provided to athletes and coaches in case they want further analysis of their performance.”
Computer vision also powers systems that ensure accuracy in other ways – video-assisted officiating has now arrived in the rink.
“In speed skating, we now have false start detection technology,” adds Zobrist. “[Previously] the judges and starters had no tech support, they just decided [manually]. Now we have AI cameras with computer vision technology that can analyze the athletes’ entire start sequence. There is a specific screen that the judges can watch and make the right choices.
Judges also benefit from advanced photo-finish cameras that take 10,000 digital images every second if it is necessary to determine the finest margins, while photocells emit beams of light onto the finish line to provide a precise timing. Sensor-based positioning systems allow broadcasters and coaches to see live positions in speed skating or the speed of a bobsled racing down a track, and there’s not a single stopwatch in sight.
An Omega camera captures images that will be used to determine photo finishes
Instead, the Olympics are now measured by “quantum timers” that measure down to millionths of a second. For a sport like track cycling or luge, where events are timed to the thousandth of a second, this is significant.
Another new innovation has nothing to do with refereeing or fan engagement – it’s just for the athletes. During the ice hockey tournament, a one-sided LED display built directly into the plexiglass surrounding the rink displayed the game clock and power plays without disturbing the view of spectators allowed to enter the arena. It’s much more convenient – and easier on the neck – than watching a giant screen from a jumbotron hovering above the ice.
Anyone involved in an Olympic Games spends years preparing for a single fortnight. The legacy of these efforts in the months and years following the closing ceremony is never too far from the minds of organizers and partners.
Beijing 2022 may now be firmly in the back window, but Omega’s attention has already turned to Paris 2024 and beyond, and how it might be able to help other international federations in their ambitions.
“[Preparation] is an ongoing process as we have been working with federations for many years and have a long-term innovation strategy that we share with them,” says Zobrist. “We involve these federations, broadcasters, coaches and athletes in our processes so that we can see what their priorities are and what we would like to implement in the near future.”