Olympic Games: how Omega timers changed swimming

To celebrate the Olympics, I thought it would be fun to put together some articles about the science and technology that surround the games.

Well, now that the opening ceremonies are mercifully over, it is time to get into the main attraction: the Olympic Games. I look forward to this every couple of years – because of course, I have to watch the Winter Games as well as the Summer. This year, however, I got to thinking about what makes the games tick and how they might have been different in the past.

One competition that is easily recognisable as having been changed drastically by technology is swimming. While the business of swimming is the same as it ever was, the means by which swimmers’ times are kept have changed greatly. When, I wondered, did those sensors at the ends of the pool become part of the game?

My answer came from Carly Geehr, former U.S. Swim Team member and current User Interface designer, on Quora:

In swimming, touchpads were introduced by Omega at the 1967 Pan American Games in Winnipeg. This “wet” run was used as a test of the Swim-O-Matic system before the Mexico City summer games in 1968, where they were used for the first time in Olympic competition. Electronic timing itself was first used in athletics events in the Olympics all the way back in the 1948 London Games, but it wasn’t until the 1968 Olympics (Grenoble/Mexico City) that electronic timing became the primary method of determining finish order – both in and out of the water.

The Omega website goes on to say that the original Omega contact pads went into production in 1962, having made the breakthrough of developing a sensor that would not be affected by splashing waves, but would accurately detect a human hand pressed against it. To this day, Omega is the only brand used for Olympic swim meet timekeeping.

The road to accurate timing, Carly notes, is paved with close calls that demanded better timekeeping. The 1960 Olympics in Rome featured a 100m freestyle that was mired in controversy as she notes and as is also noted in one competitor’s Wikipedia entry. When Lance Larson came from behind to take what to most eyes appeared to be the win, but that win was denied by the line judges of the time, even the timekeepers showed him with the faster time. Omega notes that in modern times, electronic cameras have confirmed their keeper’s accuracy, electronic starting guns that replaced the old firecrackers and start blocks that can detect false starts have made accuracy within fractions of a second the standard for Olympic racing.

So keep in mind as you watch this year’s games in London: you are most emphatically not watching your daddy’s Games.

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.