Smart Thinking

Just how fast are the Winter Olympics?

And how in the world do you time a man moving at 100mph on an ironing board?

Words by
Aleks Cvetkovic

The Olympics is always a marvel, but let’s be honest, the Winter Olympics knock the spots off the summer version for pure wow. Yes, there’s plenty that impresses at the Summer Olympics (they throw the javelin how far?), but the warmer of the two Olympiads lacks the nail-biting speed and edge-of-your-seat risk-taking we’re about to witness in Pyeongchang.

Over the next two and a bit weeks, well see the world’s finest athletes compete in some of the toughest sports humanity’s dared to dream up, from Alpine skiing to lugeing, clocking speeds of up to 100mph along the way.

All this speed poses some unique challenges for the event’s organisers, particularly where timekeeping is concerned. Omega’s taken on the mantle of official timekeeper to the Olympics 28 times since 1936, and this year the watchmaker’s parachuting in 300 timekeepers, supported by 350 trained volunteers and no less than 230 tonnes (it’s a big parachute) of equipment to keep track of it all.

Accurately timing an athlete lying a few centimetres above the ground moving at Autobahn speeds takes some doing, and so not surprisingly, some of the tech the Swiss watch company has developed beggars belief. As we shall now demonstrate.

Winter Olympics, JackalSpeed skating

With speeds of around 40mph, speed skating is the fastest human-powered, non-mechanical-aided sport in the world. The strength and balance, to say nothing of the composure required to stay in control mid-race is superhuman. And so too is the timekeeping, which measures Olympic races to the nearest thousandth of a second.

This year, Omega’s gone to town, fitting cutting edge-transponders to the boots of competing athletes. These will beam the speeds of each athlete into your living room, updated in real time. The position of each athlete – or team – on the oval will also be available in real time, too.

If you’ve ever watch speed skating at the Olympics, you’ll recognise the ‘line to beat’ superimposed onto TV screens that indicates the time set by the athlete currently in first place – that was developed by Omega boffins, too.

Winter Olympics, Jackal magazineDownhill skiing

Cowbells, hot chocs and smiling locals – Alpine skiing looks pretty on TV, but the view from behind a skier’s goggles must be terrifying. The men’s downhill event frequently sees sportsmen hurtling down a mountain at speeds up to 95mph – more than double what an experienced recreational skier is expected to average.

To keep pace, timekeepers use a system called ‘Stromotion’, a tool that slows down the action, breaks it into sections and then predicts the possible course of an athlete. Mid-run, motion sensors fitted to each competitor’s boots interact with antennas along the track, providing Omega’s technicians with real-time feedback and viewers with split times and top speeds.

That’s barely the half of it, though. Sensors are also used to measure things like the acceleration and braking speeds of individual competitors, while retrospective trajectory video footage can track changes in a sportsman’s movement or technique, showing where they over or underperformed. It provides the kind of analysis that Olympians have only been able to dream of – until now.

Luge, winter Olympics, JackalLuge

Everything about the luge is terrifying. Everything. If you were to tell me to lie head-first on an ironing board wearing a leotard and skid down an icy ravine at speeds approaching 100mph (luge is the fastest Winter Olympic sport), I’d curl up in a ball. Nevertheless, plenty of speed freaks compete to be the fastest luger in the world, and Omega’s timing nerds pull out all the stops to keep pace.

During each run, sensors measure everything from the luge’s angles on the course, trajectory and acceleration, as well as the G-force that an athlete is subjected to mid-run. Everything’s designed to provide top-level feedback to competing teams. Repeater antennas placed along the track can transmit the athlete’s live speed, too, delivering a stomach-turning insight into just how much speed these extraordinary Olympians can cope with.