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The Olympic Games and sports timekeeping

Held at Athens in 1896, the first 100 metre race in modern Olympic history was won by the American Thomas Burke. One-fifth of a second separated him from the runner-up, the German Fritz Hoffmann. Everyone understood that timekeeping accuracy to 1/5th of a second was no longer accurate enough.

However, development to reach 1/100th of a second timing was slow and fraught with obstacles involving a succession of technical innovations and official regulations. In 1916, the first mechanical sports counter with an accuracy of 1/100th of a second was invented. However, until 1932, Olympic records were still recorded to 1/5th of a second because the international Amateur Athletics Federation which believed that the human eye must be able to decide the winner, refused to validate results accurate to 1/100th of a second.

Nevertheless, competition between watchmakers to measure champions’ performance with the greatest possible accuracy was all the rage. To remedy the margin of manual error of the timekeeper when he sets the counter in motion, the “cut thread” system was developed in 1912. The athlete breaks a thread stretched tightly across the starting line; this sets off an electrical signal which in turn launches a chronograph fitted with an electromagnetic control. An ingenious system, but one which did not replace the use of hand-held chronographs for several decades.

It was not until the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics that the first finishing line cameras coupled to chronographs with an accuracy of 1/100th of a second made their appearance. The photo finish system, for its part, was not officialised until 1968 in Mexico, although the process itself dates back to 1949.

In the second half of the 20th century, the development of quartz associated with photoelectric technology saw a further evolution of timekeeping. Electronic timing systems with an accuracy of 1/10,000th of a second exist nowadays.