The Master of Sports Timing – Interview with Omega’s Peter Hurzeler

By Steven V. Selthoffer, Chief European Correspondent

PHOENIX, Arizona, July 5. BEFORE there was ever a Peter Ueberroth, President, LAOOC, whose organizational and executive leadership was attributed to staging the overwhelmingly successful 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games against all odds, or a Ric Birch, Master of the Ceremonies, who has personally created and produced the last six opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympic Games including Sydney, Beijing and others… there was Peter Hurzeler, Board Member, Omega Timing, whose organizational and creative skills has successfully delivered innovation, technology and time keeping, to the Olympics, Games after Games after Games since 1969.

At the nexus of sports, technology and timing systems is Hurzeler. No one has done it better. No one else ever could. London will be OMEGA's 25th Olympic Games as Official Time Keeper and Hurzeler's 16th Games, overseeing all timekeeping, broadcast information systems and data distribution of the results for all events.

Hurzeler an Athlete to the Core
Talking and walking with him on-the-fly, at a brisk pace, it is not hard to detect an enthusiasm, an excitement that occasionally bubbles to the surface which has gone undiminished since his start with timekeeping at OMEGA with the Olympic Games more than 40 years ago.

Leaning in to make a comment, he explained once, “We have such a great team… I really enjoy working with them. Shhhhhhh! (whispering) Do you want to know something? (attempting to look both ways to conceal a favorite secret) We're really all athletes!” The technicians, the managers, the software engineers at OMEGA, continue to compete and workout in various sports in Switzerland and around Europe.

Entering the timing systems operations area unannounced, Hurzeler pats one staffer on the shoulder, gives a handshake to another in passing, eyes from other technicians briefly glance up, then down, revealing a tight suppressed smile, returning concentration to their screens. They feel better when he is around.

Delivering Innovation to the Athletes
It's hard to believe, but, it's true. Throughout the decades, Hurzeler and his team have invented and created virtually every timing system for every sport in both the summer and winter Olympic Games.

Hurzeler has stories to tell. When he speaks, your mind wants to permanently record and remember every word. There is a special atmosphere to Hurzeler, that, contrary to time keeping, is indefinable. What he has done in sports and technology in the Olympic Movement no one else has ever achieved. You know he won't be around forever.

Hurzeler “retired” a few years ago, but, the Swatch Group executives and OMEGA SA can't let go and have him returning to London to do what he does best.

There are many multiple Olympic medallists and world record holders in this world, but, few genuine legends.

Walk up, introduce yourself, thank him for what he's done. Ask him a question about the Olympics. You might get an amazing story. Get a photo together if you can. He's worked enough.

The following is an interview Peter Hurzeler granted to Swimming World while coming in from Corgemont, SUI, near Bern, to oversee timekeeping operations at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, before leaving for London.

Hurzeler Interview

SW: Peter, it looks like they have you working a lot here in Omaha. You're supposed to be on the golf course and retired. What went wrong?

Hurzeler: I'm thinking the same thing, but, the reality is a little bit different. Maybe after I'll go play golf with Michael Phelps here in Omaha.

SW: We know your team at Omega Timing didn't want to see you retire and leave operations. It looks like they won. Any comments?

Hurzeler: I still enjoy it, and as long as it's a pleasure to do it, I am glad to continue on. If it becomes a must, then, it would be a little different.

SW: Tell us about your career when you started back in 1969.

Hurzeler: My first responsibility was the development of the timing equipment and the first piece of equipment I worked to develop that year was the third generation of the OMEGA photo finish camera. We were only a small group of (about 14 people) and were responsible for the development of the timing equipment- and the service, and I served as a timekeeper for the first time in 1970.

In those years, we were two big watch groups- OMEGA and Longines. We were timing competitions in our respective names, and were able to collaborate for major events, but, we were 30kms away doing the same thing. In 1972, after we lost (the right to time-sic) the Olympic Games in Munich, Swiss Timing was founded to be the leader in sports timekeeping. OMEGA returned as Official Olympic Timekeeper in 1976.

A big year for us was 1986 when our role as Official Timekeeper was in question, because of cost and budget concerns, but, Mr. Hayek Sr. fought to keep timekeeping as a tradition of OMEGA. Later this month, OMEGA will serve as Official Timekeeper of the Olympic Games for the 25th time. The London Olympics will mark my 16th Games.

SW: How many Olympic Games have you been involved with setting up the timing systems for them?

Hurzeler: To date, I have led the timekeeping at 15 Olympic Games. London will mark my 16th Olympic Games.

Since 1970, I have spent 3,708 days on the road, engaged in sports timekeeping. This includes 15 editions of the Olympic Games, 36 Continental Games, a total of 19 swimming world championships, 23 European championships and over 300 athletics meetings.

SW: How many people are on your staff?

Hurzeler: Here in Omaha we are 9; in Switzerland are 169. In Germany we are 230. In London, OMEGA will deploy more than 450 professional timekeepers and data handlers supported by nearly 400 tons of equipment and a large contingent of volunteers recruited by LOCOG and trained by OMEGA.

SW: You literally re-invent the swimming and other timing systems every four years or so. What new things have you done and for what sports?

Hurzeler: We are constantly innovating. OMEGA's 164-year legacy includes countless precision records, conquests of space and the ocean's depths and, of course, sports timekeeping.

An overview of the new timekeeping equipment that will debut at the Olympic Games in London follows like this:

QUANTUM Timer
With an enhanced resolution of 1 us (one millionth of a second) the Quantum Timer and the Quantum Aquatics Timer mark the beginning of a new generation of OMEGA Timing products. The resolution is 100 times greater than with previous devices. The Quantum also delivers precision of 0.1 parts per million (ppm). This means that there is a maximum variation of only one second out of ten million seconds or a thousandth of a second out of every thousand seconds. The previous devices had a precision of 0.5 ppm so in this respect, the new ones are five times as accurate. The precision is achieved through the use of a component created by Micro Crystal, a company of the Swatch Group, which is embedded in the timer.

The OMEGA Timing design team drew on the unrivalled depth of knowledge in timekeeping across the world of sports to produce what will be the heart of many systems.

Innovative features include a complete backup built into the main unit, and with 16 independent clocks, 128 inputs and 32 outputs, it will be a challenge to find a sport that Quantum cannot time.

The 16 independent clocks mean that the 16 separate running times can be physically implemented in the hardware and the information for each can be simultaneously communicated to scoreboards or shown on television screens.

The same technology that allows the Quantum Timer to redefine cycling track timekeeping is also used in the Quantum Aquatics Timer and brings the same great timekeeping performance to water sports.

Swimming Show (Lights that Indicate the Top Three Finishers)
An innovative light system called the Swimming Show will also make its debut at the Olympic Games in London. There are lights mounted on the starting blocks positioned next to the touch pads at the end of the pool where the swimmers stop their races. A single large dot of light on a swimmer's starting block indicates first place; two medium-sized dots of light indicate second; three smaller dots of light confirm the third place finish.

The Swimming Show light system was conceived primarily for spectators. They don't need to look at the main scoreboard to confirm the results; the three top finishers will be clearly identified at the end of the pool. The Swimming Show can also indicate intermediate rankings of the top-three competitors every hundred meters.

Open Water Gate
Among the most challenging of the Olympic disciplines are the men's and women's swimming marathon. OMEGA's new Open Water Gate is set up not only at the beginning and the end of the race, but, also in intermediate positions so at the London 2012 Olympic Games, new timing information will be available. Previously, times were only reported at the beginning and the end of the marathon. Now, intermediate times will also be available.

The gate positioned at the finish has touchpads with vertical transponder antennas while the ones in the intermediate positions have horizontal transponder antennas that pick up the signals “on the fly” from the transponders the swimmer wear on their wrists. At the finish, there are also high-definition cameras mounted on poles that serve as a reliable backup system and which are also used when athletes are too close in time and cannot be ranked by the transponder system alone.

SW: Omega Swiss Timing does the analysis tools, the analytic graphics, and other things for the television broadcast solutions. You are also in charge of Games Management, with setting up all the Accreditation, Registration and Sport Entries Sub Systems… that's a lot more than just swimming touch pads and displays. Are you also overseeing all of that at London 2012?

Hurzeler: Correct, in London, not only will OMEGA time every Olympic event, but, we will also manage the display of the results at the venues and on the global broadcasts, and facilitate the distribution of results to the world's media.

SW: There are not as many ties in the semi-finals or finals like the European Championships in Debrecen, HUN, recently. Tell us about what you think happened there.

Hurzeler: Here in Omaha, we had 167 competitors in the 100m freestyle and we had 30 ties. That's normal. The more swimmers you have on a similar level, of course you can have more ties than normal.

SW: What new technologies are on the horizon that you want to bring into sports?

Hurzeler: I like to say that sports timekeeping is like Formula One. Each year, at the most basic level, it's the same car- four wheels, a great engine, etc. But, we're constantly innovating. Maybe the car is a little stronger, it drives faster, but, the system itself doesn't change. It's the same in timekeeping- because time doesn't change.

SW: Thank you for your time Peter. We the Swimming World staff and everyone at the U.S. Olympic Trials appreciates it. All the best to you and your team here in Omaha and in London. Looking forward to seeing you there.

Special thanks to Audra Silverman, Brener, Zwikel and Associates, NY, NY, for her assistance with this interview. For more information about timekeeping and the upcoming London 2012 Olympic Games, please go to: Omegatiming.com and Swisstiming.com

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