Talk about fast company. On the first day of Olympic competition in Salt Lake City, Dutch wunderkind Jochem Uytdehaage overpowered 31 other athletes — all traveling around a frozen oval with razor-sharp skates and just inches to spare — to capture the gold medal in speed skating. Along the way, Uytdehaage also set an all-time world record by completing 5,000 meters in 6 minutes and 14.66 seconds — that’s 3.32 seconds faster than silver medalist Derek Parra and roughly 30 MPH. Without a helmet.
On the alpine hill, the luge chute, and the slalom snowboarding course, speed wins. One-hundredth of a second makes all the difference in the world. And absolute accuracy is critical in every measurement. That’s where Seiko comes in.
The official timing company of the 2002 Winter Games, Seiko worked for more than four years to develop, create, and implement the timing and scoring systems at work in Salt Lake City. From ultralight transponders strapped to the ankles of cross-country skiers to photo-beam units designed to withstand temperatures of -30 degrees, Seiko’s timing technology is the most advanced and innovative ever used at the Olympic Games.
“Olympic speeds are absolutely breathtaking — much higher than those of any other nonmotorized sport,” says Robert Wilson, a London-based Olympic project coordinator for Seiko. “So our tolerance and accuracy levels in timing have to be equally high, simply because of the speeds at which these lunatics do their thing.”
Indeed, the 2002 Winter Games are shaping up to be one of the fastest Olympics ever, with records already broken in the men’s 5,000-meter speed skating, the women’s 3,000-meter speed skating, and the women’s single luge. That velocity is due, in part, to Salt Lake City’s location at roughly 4,500 feet above sea level, where the air is thinner and the ice is faster. But improvements in speed also stem from Seiko’s timing and scoring technology, which has been in place since Olympic trials began in Salt Lake City last year. Since then, athletes and coaches have been analyzing Seiko’s performance data and making adjustments in ski wax, snowboarding stance, and cross-country pacing to take advantage of the conditions in Utah.
“In a certain sense, the Olympics happened a year ago with the test-event process; that’s our deadline,” says Wilson, who worked with Seiko on the 1998 and 1994 Olympics in Nagano, Japan and Lillehammer, Norway. “The Olympic Games themselves are just a rerun for Seiko.”
Well, not quite. In the weeks preceding Salt Lake City’s opening ceremony, Seiko shipped in 150 engineers and a support staff of 250 volunteers. Their job: to oversee each of the 90,000 measurements taken on the biathlon track, the speed-skating oval, and elsewhere throughout Olympic Park. Even in less time-sensitive sports like figure skating and ice hockey, the Seiko team plays an integral role.
In response to demands from the media, Seiko has developed supercharged scoring mechanisms that broadcast athletes’ official times to spectators, commentators, and judges just one-tenth of a second after they cross the finish line. That instantaneous scoring is difficult enough in straightforward racing sports like speed skating; it’s much more challenging in cross-country skiing, for example, where the athlete who finishes first is not necessarily the winner.
“Cross-country skiers can incur time penalties as they complete the course,” Wilson explains. “It used to take forever for results to get processed with those penalties factored in. But now, as soon as athletes cross the finish line, we know exactly where they stand in relation to the other competitors. The speed by which we broadcast those results has drastically improved since Nagano.”
Scores appear on one of fourteen full matrix scoreboards that display more data — including finishing times, athlete statistics, and other information for spectators — than ever before exhibited at the Olympic Games. “The information economy is a demanding customer,” Wilson jokes.
Among the sports most heavily affected by technological advancements this year are short-track speed skating, the biathlon, the Nordic combined, cross-country skiing, and alpine skiing. On the short track, speed skaters travel up to 26 MPH and often finish within milliseconds of each other. Here, Seiko has installed two photo-finish cameras that snap 2,000 images per second and allow judges to view a high-definition-TV image of the finish line that can discern time resolutions of up to one-thousandth of a second.
Competitors in the biathlon, Nordic combined, and cross-country skiing events will introduce transponder technology to the Olympics. “Finally, radio transmitters are small and light enough for athletes to wear one on each ankle,” says Wilson, who works as Seiko’s director of marketing for Europe during the off-season. “This marks the first time transponder-based timing will be used as an official Olympic time.”
Athletes wearing the wireless transponders pass over antennae buried under the snow, which pick up athletes’ radio signal and transmit information about their identity and time to timing central. At a given moment, more than 100 athletes may pass over 20 timing and pretiming points. The stream of continuous times helps keep spectators engaged in a sport that is otherwise difficult to watch from a distance, Wilson says.
On the Alpine run, skiers pass through at least one “speed trap” and five intermediate timing points. Data collected at each point is broadcast to spectators and coaches, who constantly analyze it to see how athletes can shave time off their next run. Certainly, technology is transforming Olympic sports, though Wilson insists high-tech advancement was never Seiko’s goal or priority in creating its systems for the 2002 Winter Games.
“The most important thing is not to be innovative; it’s to be right,” Wilson says. “Seiko will take 90,000 measurements in Salt Lake City — and the majority of them will decide who wins and who loses. We have people’s lives in our hands. It might be fun to innovate with new, sexy technology, but none of that means anything if we aren’t right.”
Being right also means taking unprecedented precautions to ensure that no data collected during any sport is lost due to mechanical breakdown, natural disaster, or foul play. Seiko’s “hot” backup system, for example, kicks in automatically and seamlessly in the event of a cut cable or other accident. Another backup system synchronizes printing timers at course intervals to ensure hard-copy duplicates of all data. A final backup system protects the information that spectators and the media receive via scoreboards.
“There is one simple reason why we have four levels of backup,” Wilson says. “In most winter sports, each individual time matters. It’s not like the 100-meter dash, where the time of the guy who finishes last doesn’t matter. Here, every time of every athlete is absolutely critical. That, to say nothing of the weather and outdoor conditions, imposes a lot of discipline on us.”
But, for Seiko, the payoff is huge. The timing technology introduced in Salt Lake City will set new standards not only for future Olympic Winter Games, but also for sports outside the Olympic sphere, as well world cups and world championships leading up to the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy. Though Seiko will not power the timing and scoring in Torino (the Swatch Group — the only other company in the world with the technology required by the Olympic Committee — won that contract because of its proximity to the host city), Wilson says that he expects greater technological advances and greater accuracy with each passing Olympics.
“The reason we all go slightly gray but love it is that what we do makes a difference,” Wilson says. “Let’s imagine we mess up and miss an athlete. Well, that’s some kid’s life. That’s the difference between winning and losing — between gold and nothing. The responsibility is just awesome. That’s what keeps us up at night.”
Anni Layne Rodgers (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Fast Company senior Web editor. Learn more about Seiko’s work in Salt Lake City.