The Swiss: Olympic-timing champs
MOST countries are just sending athletes to the Seoul Olympics. The Swiss are also sending timers. As North American athletes Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson prepared for their 100-meter race on the track of the Letzigrund Stadium here, the eight-man Swiss Timers team sweated above them in its narrow booth crammed with computers. ``On your mark,'' the starter shouted. ``Set.''Skip to next paragraph
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A blip flashed on the timer's computer. False start. Mr. Johnson had lifted his foot early from the electronic starting block. The runners returned to their places, and the race was restarted.
``We used to hire watchmakers and give them stopwatches,'' Peter Huerzeler of the Swiss Timing Corporation said. ``Now we need electronic engineers and computer scientists.''
Timing the Olympics looks more complicated than competing in them. Swiss Timing is sending 100 technicians and 70 tons of equipment to Seoul. The cost: $7 million.
Since 1932, the Swiss have timed all of the Olympic games except the 1964 summer spectacle in Tokyo and the 1972 winter competition in Sapporo, Japan. Archrival Seiko handled these events in its home country.
Swiss skill, Swiss precision, Swiss reliability - these qualities made the Swiss leaders in timing sports events. In 1948 at the London Games, the Swiss pioneered photo finishes, eliminating the need to depend on the naked eye. At the 1952 Helsinki Games, they introduced super-accurate quartz timing. In 1964 at Innsbruck, Austria, they offered running time live on television, showing viewers the seconds ticking away on the screen as the race progressed. And in 1972 at Munich, West Germany, they began using the electronic start controls which caught Johnson's false start.
Despite this impressive tradition, the Swiss almost pulled out of sports timing in 1980. At that time, the entire Swiss watch industry was losing ground to the Japanese. Although the Swiss invented quartz timers, Seiko and Citizen first commercialized electronic watches.
Timing the Olympics was prestigious, all right. But it was not profitable.
``People looked at the figures and said, `it costs a lot, let's drop it,''' recalls Nicholas Hayek, president of the giant Swiss Association for Microelectronics and Watch Industry (SMH), which owns Swiss Timing. ``They wanted us to concentrate on the small niche of making luxury watches.''
Mr. Hayek refused. To him, the Swiss watch industry could survive as a major player if it transformed its image from an exclusive maker of luxury watches into a producer of fashionable, leisure-oriented ones. The plastic Swatch, introduced in 1983, launched a remarkable comeback, and now Hayek wants to consolidate his company's advances by increasing its presence in sports.
``We don't want to be seen as a company of stodgy engineers,'' Hayek says. ``We want to become associated with leisure and pleasure.''
In the view of SMH officials, this new emphasis on sports could become big business. At present, SMH sells only about $60 million worth of sports timing goods, a miniscule figure compared to its $1 billion plus watch sales.