The stopwatch, true master of the Olympic Games



For swimmer Michael Phelps, the most successful athlete in history with 23 Olympic titles over four editions, between 2004 and 2016, time is of course money, since he is under contract with Omega, the timekeeper. official of the Olympic Games. But above all, he’s a golden friend. “The stopwatch has always been my best friend, in 2008 I won the 100m final for a hundredth of a second”, exclaims the American.

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What would have happened if the technology of the time had been calibrated in thousandths of a second like in other sports? “It’s a good question, but it does not arise in swimming where it is more a subject of public works”, notes Alain Zobrist, the big boss of Omega’s sports division, who explains: “It would be pointless to measure the time with more precision when swimming pool builders cannot guarantee a perfectly flat surface of the finish wall, and therefore a strictly identical length of 50 m for each water line. “

Swimming to the hundredth, cycling to the thousandth of a second

Swimming being a sport where the speeds are relatively slow compared to cycling or sprinting in athletics, the hundredth is considered sufficient, while the most efficient machines are able to go much further in precision. Moreover, the time measured at the Olympics is an excellent mirror of the technology of an era. Electronics made its debut in the London stadium in 1948 and it was in London, again in 2012, that we have potentially gone down to one millionth.

Mexico City had invented the electronic board stopping the chronometer at the touch of the swimmer and Montreal 1976 introduced the technology justifying to it the enormous Olympic investment of the Swiss watchmaker: the live time chart, with the name of the company well in sight. It is moreover the only sponsor whose name appears permanently in the playing area, invaluable counterpart of a financial contract with the secret amount.

Indiscreet witness to performance

Technology is no longer limited to the sole measurement of time because the master of Olympic seconds and his competitors in other sporting events, provide the organization, the viewer and the athlete as well as his coaches with hundreds of data: acceleration, average speed, body position. All thanks to chips slipped into the bibs and automatic cameras distributed over the courses.

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In some disciplines, we are able to measure energy expenditure, the number of passes (successful or missed), individual slowdowns weighing on the collective performance in relay. Suddenly, the stopwatch is sometimes a snitch, fortunately strictly confined to biomechanical data. Without touching so far to the medical, hormonal, nutritive or cognitive state of the sportsmen, even to its DNA data.

Marie-José Pérec, victim of the dictatorship of time

“We will not do anything against the advice of the athletes”, assures Alain Zobrist, aware of the ethical problem. If his personal good faith is not in question, abuses will be inevitable in the long term. This is in any case the opinion of the novelist Paul-Henry Bizon, who published in the spring a novel Olympia (Éd Gallimard) devoted to the dictatorship of time and performance. With as main character Marie-José Pérec, triple gold medalist in Barcelona and Atlanta, before fleeing during the Sydney Games in 2000.

In her novel, the runner is hired twenty years after the Australian episode for an advertising campaign by the Games timekeeper, a company called Alpha, a transparent allusion to the official Olympic timekeeper. “I wrote this book because the athlete, like the human being in general is today a prisoner of an acceleration of time, says the author, sport measured solely in performance is a form of dead end dictatorship which makes athletes suffer, the important thing is beauty, grace, love of the beautiful perfect gesture, not a fraction of a second more or less ” .

This analysis seems to leave ice the big boss of Omega, who says not to have read the novel. “Our job is not to push for acceleration, but to measure fair and equitable time for all”, explains Alain Zobrist, not really worried about the future of his company under contract with the IOC until 2032. That is to say a century just after his arrival in the Olympic stadium, during the first Los Angeles Games in 1932.

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