With fractions of a second often separating the medal winners from the 'also-rans', accurate and precise timing and measurement devices play a key role in the sporting world.
"Innovation technology is important in sport as the performance levels of athletes are improving. More and more performers are being separated by 1/100th of a second. When it comes to timing in a race, you need to be as accurate as possible," said Christophe Berthaud, the Olympic manager for official timekeepers Omega.
Omega, official timekeeper of the 2008 Olympic Games, has come up with two innovations for the swimming competition at the Beijing Games - new starting blocks, which have built-in sensors linked to advanced false-start detection technology, and a digital camera used as a backup system.
With a completely new design, the new starting blocks will allow competitors to maximise their push when diving into the swimming pool, Berthaud said. It also allows competitors to keep their knees at a 90-degree angle, which will enhance the push into the water.
The new blocks feature an angled piece at the rear of the platform that resembles a track-starting block used in athletics.
Each starting block is fitted with a speaker linked to the starter's pistol, so that each contestant hears the signal at precisely the same time. The false-start detection system measures the swimmers' reaction time, which is defined as the interval between the sound of the starter's pistol and a swimmer's response.
If the time measured is less than the time in which humans can possibly react to the start signal, the swimmer has "jumped the gun", and the timekeeper uses an acoustic signal to indicate a false start.
Omega set up one of these blocks in lane nine of the National Aquatics Centre, known as the 'Water Cube', at the Good Luck Beijing China Open test event, last week, to allow competitors to test out the new technology before introducing it for the first time in the Beijing Games in August.
Omega also offered two blocks to each swimming nation prior to the Games so that participants could practise using the blocks.
Berthaud said they are coming to the end of the process of homologation with international federations, which will be completed in March.
When you want to get very accurate and precise you cannot stay with normal timing systems but move on to the era of electronic timing," he said.
Prior to the development of electronic timekeeping, 24 timekeepers were required for each race. Three were assigned to each of the eight lanes. Swimmers waited to hear the starter's pistol before hitting the pool and the timekeepers waited to see the smoke before pressing their stopwatch to begin recording the swimmers' times. Finishing times were measured with handheld stopwatches.
Omega's touch pads allow for the clock to stop at the moment of contact by a swimmer, allowing for the official times to be tabulated quickly, efficiently and accurately.
The other new innovation created by Omega for the Games is a digital camera which can take hundreds of pictures in a second and can
be replayed to check for the legality of starts, finishes and relay changeovers.
"With the systems we have invented, these Games will have the most accurate timing systems ever," he said.
But Berthaud admitted that athletes could have complaints with the timings, but he was confident that they would trust Omega's systems. The company has kept times in many competitions and most of them know the company very well, he said.
Omega will be responsible for the official results in all competitions in Beijing. The firm's timekeeping team provides comprehensive services that include the display of results to competitors and the public at venues, data handling and the provision of On Venue Results (OVR) at each of the venues, and for the delivery of official results for distribution by print, broadcast and network media to audiences around the world.
For the first time, Omega will display the results at the venues in Chinese characters.
Omega will also be the official timekeepers of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and the 2012 London Oly-mpic Games. The Beijing Olympic Games will be Omega's 23rd assignment as official timekeepers.