Olympics Watch - Timing
E&T heads out to Vancouver to see how electronic timing equipment trials are progressing.
We're looking at a fairly innocuous electronic component that could be straight out of a Radio Spares catalogue. But to Christophe Berthaud, head of Olympic timing at Swiss-based watch manufacturer Omega, it is at the heart of an infrared system he's installed at the Whistler Sliding Centre, the site of the bobsleigh, luge and skeleton competitions for the 2010 Winter Olympics to be held in Vancouver, Canada.
This high-performance, world-class sliding sports venue includes a 1,450m-long competition track, as well as the usual Olympic village buildings.
Whistler is nestled in the beautiful Fitzsimmons valley on the southeast slope of Blackcomb Mountain in British Columbia. Its centrepiece is the horseshoe-shaped competition track that may look benign on television, but is terrifying up close. The athletes are barely visible as they whistle past at up to 90mph (140kph). Along the track there are 42 pairs of infrared emitters and receivers that send a time-tagged message along a wire to a central computer in the onsite control/timing tower each time the light beam is broken. There are two systems working in parallel - a master and a backup - placed exactly 1cm apart. The instrumentation receiving and processing the data for both systems sit in a 19in rack.
The system looks remarkably straightforward, and anyone expecting to see sci-fi pioneering technology will be sorely disappointed. But the simple infrared sensors will track the progress of luge and bobsleigh competitors in real-time to the precision of a hundredth of a second. The systems used in the Olympics can resolve to the millisecond but they don't use that resolution in most events because the committee felt that such tiny differences were beyond the reliability of the technology. At a hundredth of a second, you can award a gold medal with confidence.
"What is important in terms of technology is that we never bring anything new to the Olympics," Berthaud says, describing the evolutionary process of developing and installing new timing systems for the 2010 Winter Olympics. "If a technology is used for the first time in the Olympics, it is not when it is new.
"This switch here," he adds, pointing to a tiny blue gadget in his hand, "this is the first time this particular one has been integrated into a timing system that's going live. There is some evolution of the electronics in terms of the number of cards or the type of component, but there is no dramatic change between this system and that used at the 2006 games in Turin."
Berthaud, an engineer by education, has spent more than 20 years working with Olympic timing technology. He knows the six-year rhythms of integrating new electronic systems into the mix. The key is to deliver something better, more accurate, faster and more appealing to the public while maintaining infallibility. With an estimated three billion viewers expected to switch on during the course of the Games, the key issue is reliability and the system testing starts in earnest a year earlier.
In a way, the engineers at Omega have made a rod for their own backs with new innovations such as the photofinish, synchronised on-screen timing, split times and a host of other technical achievements over successive Games.
Sports showcases rely on the integrity of their measuring and timing systems as much as they rely on their ability to broadcast ever more sophisticated programming to keep the punters hooked. Today's systems are light years away from the early days when synchronised chronographs simply recorded the time the skier started and finished his run and the results were pinned to a noticeboard several hours later.
"We are in the process of holding test events," says Berthaud. "We started last October with the short track, then we had the ski-jumping and the cross country. Now we are having a cluster of tests on all the remaining events except ice hockey, which will be around September. We have a complete cluster of six to eight weeks on all venues including test events or the Paralympics - the first time it has been done."
One of the systems that Omega is bringing to the 2010 Games is a new timer designed for the alpine skiing event. Called Chronos, it's a new generation of timer with a new clock and software. Chronos was developed last year, tested at the end of last season and tested again at the start of this system. It's being trialled at the World Championship at Val d'Isère where it is being used as a back-up system during the races and the main system during the training.
"We don't take risks with the new technology. We progressively bring it to the front. The Olympic test event for alpine skiing was in March 2009 when it was used as a main system for the first time in advance of 2010. There are other systems in development and we can expect further announcements before the Games open, but depending on how the process goes we'll release them during the year."
As the countdown progresses toward the opening ceremony on 12 February, Omega's technologists are actively involved in preparations for the competition where, for the 24th time, the Swiss watch manufacturer will serve as official timekeepers at the Olympic Games. On 12 March, they will play the same role at the Paralympic Games.
At Omega's first timekeeping assignment for the 1936 Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, a lone technician used 27 stopwatches to time each event. Seventy years later in Turin, Italy, Omega deployed 208 professionals - 127 timekeepers and 81 data handlers - with 220 tonnes of equipment. Those numbers will be blown away in 2010 as the company mobilises the largest timekeeping contingent ever in winter sport.
It may sound like a contradiction in terms but the reason for all these people is to minimise the possibility of human error. "What we are trying to do is get rid of human intervention," says Berthaud. "Most of the innovations in timekeeping emerge from controversies."
Berthaud is adamant that Omega has a good relationship with the athletes and develops the technology with athletes as design partners. "What you have to remember," he says, "is that Omega doesn't deliver the records - the athletes do. It is all about the athletes, and their results only become official once they are approved, so the judge of the International Federation is the ultimate timekeeper."
The technological dream, he says, is to develop systems that can become independent of the judges. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Omega installed a camera with a capacity for taking 2,000 frames per second. "There were two instances where a decision was made on the basis of precision down to one pixel," says Berthaud.
In the bobsleigh, the competitor starts and stops the chronometer by passing through light beams. With these systems "no one can make a contestation. You can have a cell that doesn't work, but there is no human judgement", explains Berthaud.
I've spent four days touring sites including a snowboarding test at Cypress. But Berthaud is on a tight schedule. There is time for one last question. I ask him what will keep him awake the night before the Games.
"Nothing. The Olympic Games is six years in preparation so if the day before the games start you don't sleep then you've done something seriously wrong." I check the time on my recorder. We've spoken for 14 minutes, 29 seconds.