What kind of life do the timing team lead – these
men we never see but who travel the whole world
to time the most prestigious competitions ? What is their experience of the snowy slopes ?
A multifaceted activity
While the composition of the team has changed over the years, there has been little evolution in the basic profession of sports timer for more than half a century. Despite technological progress, their job has remained essentially the same. The journey from manual or semi-manual devices to electronic equipment and more recently computerised data processing has not led to any great changes in the basic job, however. It has in fact always required the same qualities of calm, availability, staying power, discipline, meticulous work, a sense of responsibility and the ability to improvise. The job of the sports timer is a multifaceted task, depending on the context: carpenter, mechanic, electronics expert, driver or even dealing with the media. A new and highly important activity has recently been included, however, which focuses on computer technology and data processing. Nowadays, apart from mastering timekeeping, a sports timer has to be able to manage the data obtained in order to make it comprehensible and interesting, in other words to ensure that the spectators appreciate what they are seeing and can follow the skiers’ results. Whether it be on the spot, on television, on websites, for mobile phone applications or any other medium, the IT specialists in the timing team are responsible for managing complex data and relaying it in real time as fully and comprehensibly as possible using systems that are directly linked to the timing equipment itself. The challenges they face are numerous, since the electronics in the machines are becoming increasingly complex. This cutting-edge technology provides a detailed overview of the competitors’ performance, which is presented to the spectators in specially devised graphics.
The IT specialist therefore has to have the same qualities as the timers, as well as being able to combine his expert technical skills with a sense of the finished product, since he is directly responsible for what is presented to the public. The team deals with all the necessary tasks: unloading the equipment, setting up the material along the piste, installing timing instruments and computers and testing the whole system, before actually timing the competition and processing the data. It goes without saying that the members of the timing team have to be extremely fit.
Most of the timing equipment − 60 kg of material − used to be carried by the starter, the timer up in the starting hut at the top of the piste. Today three minibuses are needed to transport the material, which weighs four tonnes in all. For the more important competitions a lorry is used. Normally the timing team arrive at the ski resort three days before the competition is due to start. For some events, such as Kitzbühel or the Lauberhorn, however, more time is needed to get everything set up and ready, and for the world championships it is a 5-day job. It is also interesting to note that it takes only a matter of hours to dismantle all the equipment, however. The timing team is normally made up of six people for the slaloms or giant slaloms and seven for the downhill races. Wengen and Kitzbühel are exceptions, however, and require a larger team. The professional timers are away from home for about six months of the year. The team wears Longines uniforms and has crampons and skis. The starter has a walkie-talkie and a headset. He can use the latter to tell the rest of the team what is happening at the top of the mountain during the race.
The final touch
The day before the competition, once all the material has been set up (devices placed along the piste, video boards and timing equipment in place, IT system for the data handling up and running) the team has to check all the cables as they might have deteriorated since they were last used. Today with permanent underground cables, the timing equipment can be set up quite quickly, but in the olden days cables of up to 2000 m had to be laid by the timing team before each competition. This means that they may have to work late into the night if any problems arise, obliging them to inspect the whole length of the piste using only a head lamp to discover where the trouble-spot is.
A proven system
The timing equipment has to meet the most stringent requirements and, after testing at the factory, has to be approved by a laboratory on the basis of criteria set out by the FIS (in particular precision to 1/1000th of a second in order to guarantee the 1/100th of a second precision used in the competitions). Their checklists in hand, the team carry out one final check at least two hours before the competition is due to start. These tests cover every aspect of the system: connections to material along the piste, to the television system and the internet, to the sports commentators, etc. The machines themselves are rarely defective, but the cabling can sometimes be damaged by animals during the night. In order to be ready for all contingencies, the main timing equipment is backed up by an emergency system, which in turn can by replaced by manual timing. As has always been the case, a note of the precise starting time of the competition is given to the runner at the top of the piste who then skis down to give it to the timers at the bottom. The members of the team then go to their posts. The starter is at the top while others spread out all along the piste. The remaining timers, including in particular the IT specialists, stay in the control booth at the bottom of the piste. In order to enable everyone to concentrate fully on the job in hand, there is total silence in the control booth: the only person who is authorised to speak is the man in charge of the main system as he is constantly in contact with the race judges through a dedicated channel. The level of concentration is such that, most of the time, when the team leaves the booth they can only repeat the winner’s name and number. In the olden days, the booth at the bottom of the piste was a simple shed placed on the snow – certain timers still have the scars on their toes to remind them! Then marquees were used and heated with a fire. As might be expected, one day the whole thing went up in flames and all the material was destroyed. The organisers finally understood that properly constructed booths were needed. Once the race is over, the team has to dismantle all their equipment, collect it all together and load it for transport. Very often they have to return immediately or else go to another location to time another competition. Travel, fascinating work and life in a team. Those are the key-words for a group of men who wouldn’t change their job for anything in the world !