Ticking clock coldly decides fate of the athlete

An Omega staff member at the Aquatics Centre in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday. The Swiss company first took charge of Olympic timing requirements at the 1932 Games.
An Omega staff member at the Aquatics Centre in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday. The Swiss company first took charge of Olympic timing requirements at the 1932 Games.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Early on Thursday morning I walked unchecked onto the empty pool deck at the elegant aquatic centre and quietly imagined myself racing Michael Phelps. Even in my dreams it wasn't a close finish.

If it was, looming cameras above the finish could help make the decision, for they record 100 images a second. Perfectionists in Speedos, you might think, deserve such precision. Except that Spandexed runners would merely sneer: Their official time is measured by a photo finish camera which takes 10,000 images a second.

If technology overwhelms our everyday lives, expectedly it intrudes at a Games. Even under the water in Rio, digits are flashing. At the bottom of the Olympic pool - as an Omega official informed me - are monitors in each lane roughly 15 metres from the end. Just in case swimmers are too busy counting strokes and cannot multi-task, a number on the monitor indicates how many laps they have left.

These Games are for those who enjoy art, dance, technique, stillness and yet these Games are also for those fascinated by numerals. From wind speed to reaction times to lap times, pages of data here come like the food - by the kilo. Athletes who spend their lives happily imprisoned by numbers - Singapore marathoner Neo Jie Shi checks her pace on her watch every kilometre - will not complain.

In a simpler time, Omega, the official Olympic timekeepers, sent one fellow and 30 stopwatches to the 1932 Olympics. Now there are 480 timekeepers with 450 tonnes of equipment and by the Games' end more than a million measurements will be made. Every life here is defined and decided by digits.

Digits, for instance, like .005 of a second, which is what separated gold from silver at the 1988 Seoul Olympics after 1,000m and nearly four minutes of canoeing. The winner of that race, Greg Barton, was fittingly a mechanical engineer, but if you think he was cutting it fine then forget it. In 2012, in the women's cycling sprint, Victoria Pendleton - before she was disqualified for changing lanes - had shaved victory down to nothing in one race. She won by .001 of a second.

Athletes neurotically keep muttering about finding an edge and this is why: Because winning, they know, comes down to fingernails. Which is probably why you shouldn't cut them. So they practise on Sundays. Because it might be worth a centimetre. So they spend three days choosing a rifle barrel as Jasmine Ser did in May. Because it might be worth one point when it matters.

To separate athletic geniuses you need nerdy ones, like those from Omega who have laid 200km of cables and optical fibre at this Games. Exactness is their livelihood. The touchpad at the swimming finish requires 1.5kg of pressure (any less than that and waves might set it off). A tenth of a second later the scoreboard will apprise you of your fate. Boxers must yearn for such cold, quick and unbiased scoring. Instead, like Byun Jong Il in 1988, they sulk in rings for 67 minutes after decisions they do not like.

Clocks are vital at these Games for they give every sport a necessary order. The weightlifter in Rio will have 60 seconds to enter and start his lift and the shooter will have 50 seconds for a shot in a final. Brilliance in sport does not care for mood: You must excel when the clock starts.

Time seems short but these athletes operate in quite another dimension. LeBron James once said "for me, a second is a long time" and so 90 seconds for a gymnastics floor exercise is a lifetime. Enough for Simone Biles to construct an unforgettable performance of explosive athleticism. Of course, she won't be audibly counting but synchronised divers will, as they launch off the board in tandem. Ready, set, ballet.

At the pool on Thursday morning, the only number that was briefly pertinent was two - which was the number of frogmen who suddenly emerged after fixing underwater cameras. The stands were empty and the stadium was stocked with silence. I could only hear the water softly gurgling down a hidden duct by the side of the pool. Tomorrow it will change. Tomorrow the clock starts and with it the relentless tick, tock of judgment.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2016, with the headline 'Ticking clock coldly decides fate of the athlete'. Print Edition | Subscribe