Nick Smith’s feature ‘Omega’s Gold Standard’ from the Sunday Telegraph, 22nd November 2009

Omega’s Gold Standard

In February 2010 Vancouver will host the Winter Olympic Games. Nick Smith flew to Canada to look at the new technology put in place by official timekeeper Omega...

It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. Up high on Blackcomb Mountain in western Canada the conifers are a deep emerald green, the clear skies are cobalt blue and the snow, well it’s as pure as driven snow. This is Whistler, an exquisitely sleepy village tucked away in the crisp, cold air of the Fitzsimmons Valley. Home of the Vancouver Winter Olympics ‘sliding sports’, it’s hard to believe that in a few short weeks Whistler will be packed with some of the fastest, most adrenaline-fuelled athletes on the planet.

When it comes to the Olympic sliding sports – bobsleigh, skeleton, luge – timing is everything. A mere hundredth of a second can mean the difference between a gold or silver medal. These athletes can reach up to 90 mph and for the people in charge of timekeeping there’s simply no room for error. A billion people will watch the games on their TVs, and so the technology simply has to work, and it has to work every time.

Here at Whistler, a team of engineers and technicians has been busy integrating and testing a massively complex system of infrared emitters and receivers, sensors and transmitters, that will make sure nothing, at least with the timing, can go wrong. As the countdown progresses to the opening ceremony on 12th February, technologists from Omega are preparing for the competition, where for the 24th time, the Swiss-based watch manufacturer will serve as official timekeeper.

Omega’s president Steven Urquhart is on hand to launch a commemorative Vancouver 2010 watch. He tells me that sport, particularly Olympic sport, is part of his brand’s equity. ‘We’ve done 23 games and Vancouver will be our 24th, and so we’re in it for the long run. We’ll be at the London Olympics in 2012, the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 and at Rio in 2016.’

As each competitor breaks any of the 42 infrared beams installed at intervals around the track, time-tagged data is transmitted to a bank of computers in a control tower. It’s complicated stuff and this nerve centre where all the split-times, rankings, sector times and so on are automatically compiled, collated and published looks like mission control at NASA. There are dozens of technical people swarming around the tower, checking software, wiring, power… One man in the middle of it all is radiating calmness.

Christophe Berthaud is head of Olympic timing at Omega. He’s got more than twenty years experience in developing new electronic timing systems, and he knows the six-year rhythms of bringing new technology to the games. His faith in technology is astounding and his job is to ‘remove the possibility of human error.’ He’s currently in Whistler to oversee some timing technology trials using real athletes.

Berthaud says that most of the technical innovations he’s been involved with have arisen from controversies and he’s adamant that although you can blame the timekeeper for virtually anything, he has a good relationship and reputation with the competitors. ‘You have to remember’ he says, ‘that Omega does not deliver the world records. The athletes do that. It’s all about the athletes and their results only become official once they are approved by the International Federation, the ultimate timekeeper.’

When Berthaud’s team arrives in Vancouver next year he’ll be spearheading the largest technical support operation the Olympics has ever seen. Although he’s not revealing the exact figures, at the Turin Winter Olympics back in 2006 he deployed 208 people – 127 timekeepers and 81 data handlers – with more than 220 tonnes of equipment. These were the games when speed skaters had transponders strapped to their ankles for the first time. These were to measure bursts of acceleration, the speed around a hairpin bend, or in the case of a skater crashing, sudden deceleration. According to Berthaud, Vancouver 2010 will ‘blow that away.’

But it wasn’t always like that. The first Winter Olympics Omega was involved in was way back in 1936 at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany. A lone timekeeper from Switzerland arrived with a suitcase full of stopwatches to time each event. Admittedly, these timepieces were certified chronographs, and there were twenty-seven of them, but for nervous competitors expecting instant results, they were in for a long wait. The official rankings were posted on a notice board often hours after the event.

Back at the track Christophe Berthaud can take one last question before he getting back to his time trials. I ask him what will keep him awake the night before the Olympic games start. ‘Nothing’ comes the reply, because he knows it’s all going to work.

 

Timepiece to remember

As the clock counts down to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Omega is releasing two commemorative watches. The Seamaster Diver 300m ‘Vancouver 2010’ is being produced in 41mm and 36.25mm versions, each in an edition limited to 2010 pieces.

The Vancouver watch has a distinctive white lacquered dial with red anodized aluminium bezel rings, recalling the maple leaf on the Canadian national flag. There is a further connection to the Games with the addition of the five Olympic rings on the counterweight of the red-tipped rhodium-plated second hand. All hands and indexes are coated with white Super-Luminova, creating a soft blue reflection in low light.

The ‘Vancouver 2010’ has its caseback embossed with the Winter Olympics Games logo, including a design based on the stone cairns erected by Canada’s First Nations peoples as a greeting to visitors in their territories. Called Ilanaak – the word means ‘friend’ in Inuktitut – it is the official symbol of the 2010 Vancouver Games.

http://www.omega.ch/

 

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