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Olympic timing a high-tech affair

Long gone are the days of timers with stopwatches. Now it's a combination of light sensors, transponders, GPS, and more. CNET's Ina Fried has a look at all the tech that goes into scoring the Winter Games.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia--Less than a century ago, the timing of downhill skiing required someone at the top and bottom of the run, each with a stopwatch synchronized to the time of day.

Every few skiers, the timer at the top would send down a piece of paper with the start times of the last few skiers and then some math would ensue, eventually resulting in the time of the run being calculated.

Oh, how things have changed. Not only is everything electronic, of course, but the sensors are often tied to the athletes themselves. In speedskating, racers wear a transponder that can measure not only start and finish times, but also determine other things, such as acceleration in and out of a turn. On the slopes, it is the skier's knees passing through a "snowgate" that creates a contact, instantly sending an impulse to triggers the start of the electronic timing.

"There's not a lot of human intervention," said Christophe Berthaud, general manager of Omega Timing.

That said, the high-tech effort actually requires more people to administer. At its first Olympics, in Germany in 1936, Omega sent a single technician with 27 stopwatches to the Games. At the 2006 Turin, Italy, Winter Games, Omega sent 208 people--127 timekeepers and 81 data handlers--along with some 220 tons of equipment.

Each year, Omega finds a new way to either enhance the accuracy or reliability of the timing. This year, for example, Omega is adding a new electronic starting gun that replaces the traditional pistol and blank cartridge. The new gun emits a consistent light and sound that can be used with a time-synchronized photo as a backup if the electronic timing system were to fail.

Plus, Berthaud, notes, the new starter is a lot easier to get through airport security.

Meanwhile, the ability to measure minute differences in finishing times also has improved. And a new photo finish camera, for example, shoots 2,000 frames per second.

Improved ability to measure minute differences is important, Berthaud says, because of how close the results can be.

In some events, a 3-kilometer run can be settled by a matter of less than two meters by athletes traveling at more than 100 kilometers an hour.

"It give you an idea of the accuracy you need to deploy," he said.

Some events, such as aerials skiing, ice dance and figure skating, of course, do have a human component, evaluating the technical and artistic merits of a performance.

"When you are having judges of course the human component is important," Berthaud said. "What we are bringing in order to make it more fair is a certain number of technologies to help the judges."

The biggest enhancement, there, he said, has been the use of more video replays to make the judging more systematic. "You don't rely only on the memory or the eye of the judge."

That, of course, has not made the scoring in figure skating any less controversial, but at least there can be no argument over whether a skater did or did not complete a required element.

Humans, are also key, Berthaud said, in being able to make sense of what the technology produces. Being able to read those photo finish images, he said, requires years of training, much as a doctor needs to learn how to read an X-ray.

"You need to have people very well trained to see a pixel of difference," he said. Still, he said, there's one thing that hasn't changed.

"You have a start and a finish the one that crosses the line first is still the winner," Berthaud said.