SOCHI, Russia — In its Olympic advertising, Swiss watchmaker Omega says proudly: “We measure the 100th of a second that separates winning from taking part.” Even that wasn’t enough to decide Wednesday’s downhill.
Switzerland’s Dominique Gisin and Tina Maze of Slovenia became the first Alpine skiers to share an Olympic gold after both clocked 1 minute 41.57 seconds down the Rosa Khutor piste in southern Russia.
“You want to know who was the winner?,” asked Peter Huerzeler, a board member with Omega Timing, in a telephone interview.
After that teasing question, Huerzeler explained that whether Gisin or Maze had been fractionally quicker is destined to remain a mystery.
“Before a race starts we have to set our systems in the position to measure in hundredths or thousandths (of a second).
“After the race it’s not possible for us to find out (more about) how the time was made,” said Huerzeler, who is involved in his 17th Olympics in Sochi.
Omega can time events to a millionth of a second, but it is the sports federations who decide on the level of precision they require.
Different sports take different approaches, prompting a debate about when a tie should be declared and glory shared.
In Moscow last August, British runner Christine Ohuruogu claimed the world 400 metres world title by four thousandths of a second.
In athletics electronic timing was first introduced in 1912, though only in 1932 was it linked to a photo-finish machine. Swimming is happy to stay with 100ths and has had dead heats in the Olympics and major championships.
In downhill skiing, when racers go against the clock rather than each other, there is no recourse to visual images to decide the classic “photo finish”.
There is also no consistency across the Winter Olympics as to when the timekeepers stop counting.
The International Luge Federation measures times to the thousandth of a second after the doubles gold medal was shared at the 1972 Olympics when two pairs clocked the same time.
However, in other sliding events like bobsleigh and skeleton, they use only hundredths.
Technology has come a long way since Omega, part of the Swiss Swatch Group, first started timing Olympic events more than 80 years ago.
At the 1936 Winter Games in the German town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, officials at the top and bottom of the mountain relied on synchronized stop watches and noted down start and finish times on a piece of paper. Skiers had to ferry rivals’ start times in their pockets as they raced downhill.
Competitors’ times began appearing on TV screens in the 1960s, making races much more exciting for viewers.
Huerzeler, who has led the development of Omega’s timekeeping for sports events since the late 1960s, said he was not frustrated by Wednesday’s dead heat. “I find it very fair. It’s fantastic for the sport,” he said.
Norway’s Swiss coach Stefan Abplanalp agreed. “It’s better to have a gold and share with someone else than to have silver or bronze. In each country, Dominique in Switzerland and Tina in Slovenia, they are the only Olympic winner.”