The Swiss: Olympic-timing champs

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.''

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.''

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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.

SMH has now developed stadium scoreboards featuring color television. After a long absence from the United States market, it won recent contracts to renovate scoreboards in Boston's Fenway Park and Tempe, Arizona's Sun Devil Stadium. SMH officials say sales of electronic stadium timers, timeboards also adapted for nonathletic sites such as highways and railroad stations, could reach $250 million within five years.

``We used to look at athletics just as a technical tool,'' admits Ernst Thomke, SMH Executive Vice President. ``Now we want to integrate it into our overall strategy.''

In past Olympics, the Swiss only provided timing services. In Seoul, they will coordinate the graphic elements and statistics for television.

``It used to be easy; you just gave the results to the judge,'' says Manfred Laumann, Director of Swiss Timing. ``Now everyone wants more information - and right away without any mistakes.''

Precautions are impressive. Two photo-finish cameras and two computer-aided clocks are used at every race in case one breaks down. An electricity blackout won't shut down the timers, either. They run off their own separate battery generator.

Accuracy, which at the 1932 Olympics was only 1/10th of a second, now is assured within 1/1,000th of a second.

``If we err, we want to err on the slow side,'' Mr. Huerzeler says. ``We don't want everybody to think there's a world record and have to correct it.''

Huerzeler sees himself as a friend of athletes, guaranteeing their results and protecting their rights. He travels up to 30 weeks of the year, staying in the same hotels as the athletes.

``I really respect them,'' he says. ``My role is to make sure that all their efforts are fairly judged.''

When Florence Griffith Joyner smashed the women's 100-meter record at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis in July, journalists saw the stadium flags waving and assumed a vigorous wind had helped her. Huerzeler called a press conference, and explained that his wind computer showed minimal turbulence on the track. Ms. Joyner's record was accepted.

In the 1984 Olympics, American Kim Turner and France's Michele Chardonnet crossed the finish line in a dead heat for third place in the women's 100-meter hurdles. Olympics officials awarded the bronze medal to Ms. Turner. But Huerzeler's Swiss team reexamined the data and found that the two women had finished at exactly the same 1/1,000th of a second. Four months later, Ms. Chardonnet was awarded a bronze medal in Paris.

``That's one of my proudest moments,'' Huerzeler says. ``We corrected a terrible injustice.''

Surprisingly, the Swiss timers say that unlike baseball umpires or football judges, their decisions rarely are questioned. Athletes agree. ``You trust them,'' says Harald Schmidt, the West German 400-meter hurdle champion. ``Their machines are impartial.''

Swiss neutrality also helps. An American or Russian company might be accused of favoring its own athletes. The only Swiss track and field athlete with a chance at a medal in Seoul is Walter Guenther. He competes in a sport without any timing - the shot put.

``I don't like to think we'll be the only Swiss team in Seoul,'' Huerzeler says. ``Let's just say that Switzerland will be the only country at the Olympics with two teams.''

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