Even NBC needs a little help to give television viewers every possible point of data on Lolo Jones, the U.S. bobsledder and media darling. In Sochi, that assistance will come from Omega, the official timekeeper of the Sochi Olympics, with a new bobsled-tracking device that will measure sled speed, acceleration and angular velocity (the speed of the sled while it rotates).
Part of the high-tech Sochi timing stable brought to the games, Switzerland-based Omega will strap a device that holds a 3D acceleration sensor, speed sensor, 3D gyro-sensor and wireless transmitting to each sled going down the Sochi track. Exact data includes the three-axis gyro-sensor continuously determining the speed of the sled, even as the angle changes, and the three-axis acceleration sensor determining the forces acting on the driver during the run, with each axis measuring a different acceleration parameter.
“For bobsleigh, until now, you have the start and finish line,” Omega head of timing Peter Hürzeler told SI.com. “Now we can show spectators when (the sled) lost time or was correct and how much time was lost by touching the wall. You can follow the race exactly.”
Having worked 17 Olympics, Hürzeler knows a few things about timing. But he’s also quick to admit “timekeeping is always the same thing. You have a start. You have a finish line.” And while Omega wants to improve the technology that tracks those exact instances, the latest upgrades in the system must also look beyond simple timing.
“Today it is more important for television,” he said. “It is a TV show at the end. For this reason we have to work a lot for graphics systems.”
With 1,000 test races under their belts, Omega is ready for the bobsled changes in Sochi. And they feel they have a tool that will not only enlighten television viewers but also benefit bobsled teams.
The McLaren-led team, which designed Britain’s new bobsled, clamored for race results during tests, Hürzeler said. The new data can show the exact line of the sled in relation to the track and every possible acceleration and deceleration point along the way, a key piece of information on a Sochi track that includes three uphill sections. McLaren modified its sled based on the data received.
Technology in other events
With 230 tons of equipment brought to Sochi, including 30 public and 90 sports scoreboards and 48 miles of cables and optical fiber, Omega has also made some tweaks to the speed skating electronic start system that debuted in Vancouver.
The system uses a new-look starter gun -- it doesn’t actually resemble a gun to ease security hassles -- to simultaneously emit a flash of light, generate sound through a speaker behind each competitor and start the event timing. Hürzeler says Omega changed the sound because the old noise was more like a “hammer against a tube.”
Transponders on both legs of the skaters will also allow television viewers to know exactly where the skater stands in relation to the top time of the event. “You can follow if the athlete is ahead or behind,” Hürzeler says. “You can fight with him to arrive. It is essential to make the sport more interesting for people who know nothing about it.”
The transponders also help with the Scan’O’Vision Photofinish Camera that measures finishes. When it debuted in 2000, the system was taking 800 pictures per second. For Sochi, technological advancements have it up to 2,000 pictures per second, locking down a winner to half a thousandth of a second.
Throughout skating and skiing events, Omega will use laser photocells that track athlete’s transponders for accurate split and finish times.
The Snowgate starting gate, also debuted in Vancouver, has refined its technology so that the starting pulse is generated when the gate’s bar reaches the precise same angle for every competitor.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and technology for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.