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Timing At The Olympics Is An Art And A Science

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

During the Olympic Games, we focus on the athletes, but there's a key component of many of the competitions that rarely attracts attention, and that's timing. It's a science and an art, and it's responsible for ensuring fairness and accuracy. From Tokyo, NPR's Tom Goldman focuses on the machines and people behind official timing.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: This was the finals of the Olympic men's 100-meter sprint at the LA Memorial Coliseum in 1932.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: With the runners bunched at the start, it's Ed Tolan of Michigan in the foreground, edging in front of Metcalfe of Marquette.

GOLDMAN: How was that time kept?

ALAIN ZOBRIST: Back then, one watchmaker was sent all the way to Los Angeles and in his suitcase, 30 stopwatches.

GOLDMAN: That's Alain Zobrist, CEO of Omega Timing. Omega has been the official Olympic timer for the nearly 90 years from 1932 to 2021 in Tokyo.

ZOBRIST: We're going to be 530 timekeepers deploying over 400 tons of equipment.

GOLDMAN: Consider the equipment, for instance, involved in the men's and women's 100-meters being contested this weekend. As Zobrist demonstrated in a virtual tour of timing at the Olympic stadium, the races begin with a starter's pistol that looks more like a plastic ray gun. Zobrist, wearing a starter's headset microphone, holds up the gun with two cables coming out of the bottom of the grip.

ZOBRIST: On your marks, set...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

GOLDMAN: The electronic gun is connected by cable to the timing system. The other cable is connected to a false start system, detecting when runners leave too soon. Using pressure sensors in each sprinter's start blocks, it measures the athlete's power and force exerted on those blocks as the race begins.

ZOBRIST: So in case there is an increase of pressure before 1/10 after the gunshot, it would be considered as a false start and the system would be able to measure this information and call the race off in case of false starts.

GOLDMAN: Getting here from 1932 and stopwatches has been an evolution marked by several watershed moments - the late '40s, when electronic equipment eliminated reaction times of human timers, 1948, the first photo-finish cameras introduced, 1968, touchpads in Olympic swimming pools allowed athletes to stop the clock using their fingers or, in the case of Michael Phelps in 2008, finger nails.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Surely he can't do this from this space. Michael Phelps is coming back at five. Is he going to get the touch? No, he's not. Oh, no, he's got it.

GOLDMAN: Phelps won that 100-meter butterfly race at the Beijing Olympics by 1/100 of a second, something he knows wouldn't have been possible without touchpads.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL PHELPS: I'm very thankful, but it's kind of awesome to be able to see everything that they're doing on all sports.

GOLDMAN: In Tokyo, new timing innovations are being used in open water swimming, water polo, sport climbing, as well as in track and field and swimming. Positioning systems and motion sensors worn by athletes tell the full story of a race, where time was gained or lost. Zobrist says the timekeeping room at an Olympic venue is very quiet. There's a lot of focus and attention to detail.

ZOBRIST: One has to be very calm. Imagine the 100-meter final where the time keepers know that more than a billion people are watching that race, and you can't do any mistakes.

GOLDMAN: In his eight Olympics, Zobrist says there haven't been any timing controversies, meaning the athletes and the events have remained the center of attention, the way timekeepers like it. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Tokyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.