Posts Tagged ‘Canada’

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

December 1, 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/

 

Advertisements

‘Olympic Time’ by Nick Smith, E&T magazine (full text)

April 15, 2009

Olympic time

With less than a year to go until the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Nick Smith went to Canada 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, synchronized 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 evermore 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 notice board 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 season. 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 2010, 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 27stopwatches 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 event, 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.

Nick Smith’s Winter Olympics Omega technology preview feature is now out in the latest edition of E&T magazine…

April 15, 2009

With less than a year to go until the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Nick Smith went to Canada to see how the electronic timing equipment trials are progressing…

To read more you’ll need to get hold of Engineering & Technology magazine (11-24 April 2009) or visit http://www.theiet.org/magazine