2020 Tokyo Olympics: What to Know About the Omega Timers at the Games

by Leanne Stahulak

At every Olympics, fans obsess over record-breaking times and down-to-the-wire finishes. But only one company provides the equipment to track those times effectively.

Since 1932, Omega Timing has exclusively acted as the timekeeper for 29 different Olympics. At that time, competitions were measured with 30 manual stopwatches, transported from Switzerland to L.A. for the 1932 Games. They used those stopwatches until the photo-finish camera was introduced in 1948. Even then, the revolutionary electronic technology didn’t become commonly accepted until about 20 years later.

“The great advantage of that was that we could eliminate all human reaction times. Which was great, obviously, for the athletes,” Alain Zobrist, Omega’s CEO of Timing, told Hodinkee. “There was a controversy in 1960 when two athletes finished with the exact same time. One was awarded a gold medal, the other won the silver medal and they both had an Olympic record. So that really led to the electronic push to eliminate human error.”

That push really solidified when Omega introduced the touchpad sensor for Olympics swimming in 1968. The timekeeping company continued to break ground with swimming when they inserted graphics over the video of the swimmers to show the world record time. Zobrist claims their system is the “most accurate” because it doesn’t always move or move at a consistent speed.

“It really is adapted according to the speed of the real world record. So when athletes would turn in the pool in swimming, you would see the velocity of the virtual graphics line – how it goes faster then slows down, according to the pace of the swimmer,” Zobrist said.

What is Omega’s New Technology for the Tokyo Olympics?

According to the National Post, Olympic sport climbers now also use the touchpad sensors used in swimming. But the biggest revolution in technology? The motion sensors and positioning systems are tracking athletes throughout an entire event.

“This is really going to be the very first time where we have an understanding of what happens during a race between the start and finish,” Zobrist said. “We will be able to track the athletes during their entire performance, we’ll know their position, we’ll know their speed, their acceleration, deceleration, and that’s just the beginning of the journey.”

For the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Zobrist hopes that the new technology can help fans, analysts, and the athletes themselves break down how a specific competitor won.

“You’ve got so many tight races in any sport. Where now, with these new sensor technologies, we’ll be able to explain where an athlete won, even in a tight race,” Zobrist explained. “And then a difference at the finish of one 1000th of a second can be further explained by other differences during the race – one athlete may have been in front of the other, the other one may have caught up. Where during that race did that happen and why?”

Zobrist said Omega plans on developing and improving upon their current technology. They have more surprises in store for the Paris 2024 games, especially.

“You will see a whole new set of innovations,” Zobrist told Wired. “Of course, it will remain around timekeeping, scoring, and certainly also around motion sensors and positioning systems. And certainly also Los Angeles in 2028. We’ve got some really interesting projects for there that actually we’ve only just started.”