How Olympic Timekeepers Judge False Starts and Photo Finishes

As athletes become faster, stronger, and bolder, timekeepers keep pace with precision gadgetry.

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Aug 18 2016, 10:00am

Bahamas' Shaunae Miller falls over the finish line to win gold ahead of United States' Allyson Felix, right, in the 2016 women's 400-meter final. Image: Matt Slocum/AP

Time is truly of the essence for Olympic athletes, as evidenced by some extremely close finishes at the Summer Games in Rio. For competitors at this elite level, a split-second can mean the difference between snagging Olympic gold and returning home without a medal.

Needless to say, every photo finish must be captured with as much precision as possible in order to clearly determine the winning lineup. For almost a century, that responsibility has fallen to Swiss watchmaking brand OMEGA, which has held the title of official Olympic timekeeper since the 1932 Summer Games were hosted in Los Angeles.

OMEGA was chosen for the role due the accuracy of its chronographs. This reputation eventually led the company to other historic opportunities, like hooking Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin up with the first watches worn on the Moon.

"1932 was, in actual fact, the first time that a single company had been given the role of timing every single event at the Olympic Games," Alain Zobrist, CEO of OMEGA Timing, told me.

Back in those days, OMEGA used one timekeeper and a few dozen stopwatches—accurate to one fifth of a second—to chronicle the events. But just as athletes have become faster, stronger, and bolder since 1932, so too has OMEGA upped its timekeeping game with each successive Olympic experience.

Today, nearly 500 timekeepers monitor results at the Games. On top of that, the company has unveiled several new technologies specifically for Rio. Among them is a finish line camera called the Scan'O'Vision MYRIA, which takes an impressive 10,000 images per second, leaving little to the imagination in terms of podium placement.

The Scan'O'Vision MYRIA. Image: OMEGA

"[W]ith 10,000 digital images taken per second, judges can pinpoint the exact positioning of each racer as they cross the line," Zobrist said. "It's so advanced that results are indisputable. From a practical point of view, the camera is much more compact now, making it easier to assemble."

In addition to sharper cameras, OMEGA debuted a new scanning system in Rio for archery, which can calculate an arrow's distance from the bullseye to within 0.2 millimeters—a level of precision imperceptible to the naked eye. The company also introduced starting blocks that measure athletes' weights 4,000 times per second, in order to better detect false starts.

New OMEGA archery technology at Rio 2016. Image: OMEGA

All of these myriad innovations share the common goal of hyper-accurate and indisputably fair rankings for the world's most exceptional athletes. After all, nail-bitingly close finishes are a time-honored tradition at the Olympics, and OMEGA's team has had to adjudicate results that would have been impossible to judge without sophisticated camera and timekeeping technology.

"There have been many unforgettable timekeeping moments over the last 84 years," Zobrist told me. "One that often gets talked about is Michael Phelps's gold medal in the 100 meter butterfly final in 2008. He won that race by a hundredth of a second, the closest possible result in swimming. That was a moment where OMEGA's presence and expertise was invaluable."

You may be thinking that a hundredth of a second doesn't sound that precise for a company capable of snapping thousands of shots in the blink of an eye. But as Deadspin's Timothy Burke points out, swim events can only be measured down to this level due to limitations in pool measurements, rather than timekeeping constraints.

Olympic pool lengths have a margin of error of three centimeters and a single pool's dimensions can subtly fluctuate depending on factors like ambient temperature and occupancy, which obfuscates timekeeping beyond one hundredth of a second. This is a topical point, given that it is the reason why Phelps just tied with two other swimmers for the Olympic silver in the 100 meter butterfly at the Rio games.

Dimensional uncertainties aside, the OMEGA timekeeping team intends to continue honoring its role as the official Olympic timekeeping by keeping pace with the achievements of athletes in future games.

"We are still in the development of our next technologies, but it's fair to say that Tokyo will be one of the most innovative Olympic Games in timekeeping that we've ever had," Zobrist said. "We want to enhance the Olympic Games for athletes, spectators, and judges, and there are many areas and sports in which we can still do that. We learn something new every year and the arrival of new software and digital abilities is going to push us even further."