09 AUG 2013 Feature Moscow, Russia

Seiko science helps separate the stars

Seiko at the 2013 IAAF World Championships (IAAF)Seiko at the 2013 IAAF World Championships (IAAF) © Copyright

The figures are instantly recognisable to athletics aficionados: 9.58, 19.19, 8.95m and 18.29m. They are, of course, a quartet of iconic world record marks set at the IAAF World Championships.

We do not think to question their validity and the reason that’s the case is because of the continued excellence of IAAF partner Seiko, who have dutifully and diligently logged the time and distance for every run, jump and throw with unyielding accuracy for more than 200 IAAF World Series events across nearly three decades.

At the 14th edition here in Moscow, their expert team more than 60 specialists will be on hand to provide their ever-reliable information, which is a crucial element of a statistically-driven sport where centimetres and thousandth of a second often separate the top competitors.

Overseeing operations across the nine days of dizzying action inside the Luzhniki Stadium and on the roads of the Russian capital is Seiko’s events and marketing services manager Susan Boobyer, where failure to deliver, she says, is simply not an option.

“We are not expected to get the timings and measurements wrong,” she adds. “Our job is to get them right and that’s what we spend our time doing. From the design of the equipment, the creation of the procedures and the working practises, to the installation and operation of the equipment. It is designed for it to always be working accurately and correctly.”

The world of timings and measurements never stand still.

New technology evolves and Seiko are at the cutting edge of change. One of the more recent examples of this has been the development of the Video Distance Measurement system (VDM) for the long and triple jump competitions – an innovation which has revolutionised the measurement of the horizontal jumps.

Making its World Championship debut as the official measurement system at the 2011 edition in Daegu, VDM has enhanced both the accuracy and speed of the measurement process.

The way it works, in simple terms, is by stereophonic cameras being placed so that they can capture the landing area, and which are calibrated before the event starts. For each attempt images are created and used to identify the exact landing point in the sand.

“It works the same as photo-finish in that a cursor is used to mark the landing point and then the software calculates the measurement,” says Boobyer. “The technology is too complicated for the officials to use themselves but they (the officials) make the final decision as to where the cursor should be placed on the image to measure the jump. We don’t make any decisions. The official does that,” she emphasises.

She argues Seiko can accurately record distances within 2mm: a system is more precise than the previously used EDM (Electronic Distance Measurement) system in which a spike or object was placed into the landing area which could lead to displacement of the sand.

Yet the VDM not only improves accuracy but also helps speed up the horizontal jump competitions.

“We have an image that is instantaneous and the measurement process is much quicker,” she adds. “How much quicker depends on location, operation or even the stage of the competition but a good operator of the previous system (EDM) would take 15-25 seconds while the VDM maybe takes between eight and 15 seconds.”

Another area where Seiko garner a lot of interest is with their slit video photo-finish system, which provides vital and accurate information in determining gold from silver. Silver from bronze etc.

Special high definition cameras are set up to focus on the leading edge of the finish line. The whole viewing lens is blocked off apart from a thin slit that looks at the very first part of the white finish line. The system is triggered by the electronic start gun and, as the athletes approach the finish, operators activate the camera to take up to 2000 images every second of the finish line.

“It takes all those tiny slithers of image, lays them down one after another and creates a time-based photograph,” adds Boobyer. ‘This means that when you view the photo-finish image it can appear quite confusing. It is not a picture of the whole vista but one piece of space over a long distance of time; and that is why we can be very accurate with our measurements.”

All timings are recorded within thousandths of a second by Seiko. This is why athletes who have recorded the same time in hundredths of a second – the measurement tool only ever displayed - can be separated.

Nonetheless, even with the current available technology, Susan admits dead heats can still occur.

“It’s fairly rare, but it does happen,” she says. “If two athletes have the same time (in hundredths of a second) they have a one in ten chance of being declared a dead heat (when reverting to thousandths).”

Seiko will also further develop their transponder system in Moscow, in which split times are recorded for every 100m of every race, and future innovations in the art of timings and measurement are inevitable.

As for Moscow we can rely upon Seiko to deliver their usual excellent service, where Boobyer would love to see the odd world record or two.

“The fact world records have been set (in the past) with our equipment heightens the experience for everyone in our team,” she says. “So, yes, in a slightly selfish way we like to see (the athletes to set world records) with our equipment.”

Steve Landells for the IAAF