As bullets fly, Ralph Kleinekathöfer keeps (perfect) time for Olympic biathlon

'Lord of the Targets' Ralph Kleinekathöfer is one of 220 professional timekeepers and engineers working for OMEGA, the timing system for the Vancouver Games. He is in charge of the targets for Olympic biathlon.

Stefan Wermuth/Reuters
Canada's Brendan Green prepares to shoot during the men's 4 x 7.5 km relay biathlon final at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, Friday.
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The Biathlon events will be held at the Whistler Olympic Park.

I’ve been to half a dozen biathlon competitions so far at these Games and I still have a hard time figuring out exactly who is shooting in which lane, whether they hit their targets, and how far back they are from the leader.

Which makes me all the more impressed with Ralph Kleinekathofer. His coworkers affectionately dub him “Lord of the Targets.”

It’s his job to man the incredible web of wires and tiny computers located behind each target – and human volunteers backstopping them – are properly representing what’s happening on the range.

“If you try to automate it, would work 99.9 percent of the time,” said Kleinekathofer, who’s been at the job 20 years. “If, for example, a skier went in the wrong lane, automatic system wouldn’t do the right thing. It’s like an airplane without a pilot – in case of emergency it won’t work.”

Kleinekathofer is part of a small army of very important officials here working for Omega, which handles the timing system of the Olympics. The 220 timekeeping professionals and engineers, backed up by 290 local volunteers and 250 tons of timekeeping equipment, are a major advancement from OMEGA’s debut at the 1936 Olympics in Germany, where timekeeping consisted of one guy and 27 stopwatches.

Today, when TV broadcasters and viewers expect live coverage – especially in Europe, where it has become the most popular winter sport on TV – timekeepers like Kleinekathofer have to manage not only race-day logistics, but also how to relay what’s happening in real-time to international viewers.

In biathlon, that means showing not only the times, but a graphical representation of which athletes are hitting their targets. Each of the five targets are represented by a black circle that turns white when they shoot.

“It really must be in the same time as you see finger pull trigger,” says Kleinekathofer, surrounded by two laptops and a labyrinth of wires.

In biathlon, skiers must hit a target the size of a grapefruit from half a football field away during the standing phase of shooting, and a target the size of a golf ball when they're lying done in the "prone" position. For each target they miss, they must either ski a penalty lap or suffer a time penalty – depending on the event.

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