Alain Zobrist is the head timekeeper at the Olympics and his team is bigger than many of the squads competing in Rio de Janeiro. He told DW why such a large staff is necessary and why watches are a thing of the past.
DW: Alain Zobrist, this is your first Olympics as head timekeeper - does the responsibility weigh heavily on your shoulders?
Alain Zobrist: I have a good and wonderful team. Not only that, but at Omega we have a lot of experience to draw on. We have been the timekeepers of the Olympic games since 1932 - not only of the Olympics, but also many other international events, which of course helps us a lot.
The timekeepers in 1932 had just 30 watches for the entire Games. How many do you have?
Today we have no watches. Everything is electronic, we mainly use computers. We traveled to Rio with 450 tons of equipment, run by a total of 480 timekeepers. This is a logistical challenge, as every sport requires timekeeping that is designed for its particular discipline.
This makes your team bigger than a large Olympic team, such as the German one, for example.
This is the case. Keeping time in all of the competitions requires a lot of effort. There are 28 different venues, so this is comparable to 28 world championships taking place at the same time.
Compared to today, it almost seems as if timekeeping in the early years of the Olympics was done in a random way. Timekeepers used stopwatches, pressing the button when they saw a competitor cross the finish line, for example. So how valid are the results from back then?
Very valid as the rules and the conditions at that time were the same for everyone. However, you can't compare the results of that time with those of today. These days, human reaction time is not a factor in timekeeping. The current technology is computer supported and is very precise.
Swimming is said to be the most complex sport when it comes to timekeeping. Why is this?
The thing about swimming is that it is a sport in which the athlete stops his time by himself. He touches a contact plate under water to stop the time. He needs to use 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds) of force to do so, because it needs to be the athlete and not a wave that triggers it.
The athletes train for years ahead of an Olympic Games and their results are decided by a tenth, hundredth or even thousandth of a second, which are measured by your team. Do the athletes trust you to get this right?
Yes they do. We get a lot of positive feedback. Some innovations have been based on ideas suggested by athletes. For the first time, for these Olympic Games we have installed underwater monitors for the time and lane displays in swimming. Many swimmers have told us that they had been waiting for this for a long time. Not only that, but new photo-finish cameras will be used that are triggered in the first five millimeters (0.196 of an inch) and are capable of taking 10,000 photos per second.
This technology decides who wins and who loses, but what happens if it fails, due to a power outage, for example?
We have backups, this is very important. There is an A and a B system in place, both of which are operated by a timekeeping team. In the case of power outages we can also continue to work using batteries. In addition to this, we also have generators, so we are not dependent upon the power supply at any of the venues.
Alain Zobrist is the head timekeeper at the Olympic Games and the managing director of Swiss Timing, a time-measuring company, which is part of the Swatch Group, as is Omega SA.. Zobrist is a Swiss national who leads a 480-member timekeeping team in Rio, which is supported by 850 volunteers. He declined to comment on the costs associated with his company's involvement in the Games.
The interview was conducted by Joscha Weber.