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Swatch Helps Keep Olympic Scores Straight - 2004-08-24

The 2004 Olympics, now in its second week, has been mired in controversy from almost the start, from a number of highly-publicized doping cases to several controversial judgment calls. But as VOA's Rebecca Ward reports, a Swiss watchmaker is helping the Olympics in Athens keep the scores straight.

When U.S. swimmer Aaron Peirsol initially lost the gold in the 200-meter backstroke, it wasn't because of timing. A swimming judge had flagged him for a turn violation but failed to make the case for the disqualification. So Peirsol was reinstated and his timing, more than two seconds ahead of his closest competitor, stood.

While timed sports still come under scrutiny for possible violations, determining who wins or loses, even by a thousandth of a second, is not so subjective. According to timekeeper Peter Huerzeler, an exact science he's practiced since 1968.

"You see I remember in Atlanta, the 100-meter race it was between Merlene Ottey and Gail Devers," he recalls. "For us, Gail Devers was the winner, but for the people and also for TV they thought that Merlene Ottey was the winner. Of course we had protests from the coach and everything. And I went with this picture to the press conference and I showed it to the press and everybody said no it's correct, Gail Devers is the winner."

The Swiss company Swatch is the Olympics official timekeeper, providing photo-finish and timing technologies that can count down to miniscule fractions of a second.

"We could go to ten thousandth of a second if you want, but who needs this?" he asks. "But the most important thing are the rules of the federation. If they are counting one-hundredth of a second, then it's one-hundredth of a second. Of course in track and field we are always timing in thousandths of a second. Because for the final you have only athletes in the blocks, and sometimes the eight and the ninth have the same time, the same hundredth of a second. Then we are going back to the thousandth."

In his 35 years of timekeeping, Mr. Huerzeler says there is one world record that stands out and will not likely be broken during this Olympics.

"A big world record that has never been broken is the 800 meter freestyle women," he explains. "Janet Evans, she has the record and if today if someone is coming closer, they are ten seconds behind. And I was talking to her during the trials in Long Beach and I told her to beat your record, you have to make the pool two meters shorter. She was only laughing and she says yeah, maybe you are right."

Swimmers, by the way, have a unique system to help determine who is going home with the gold, silver or bronze. They actually stop their own clock by hitting a touchpad at the end of each race. Timing, as they say, is everything.