David Owen

"No-one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun". This line from Time by Pink Floyd seemed apt this week.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Omega announced a 12-year extension of their global sponsorship deal, all the way through to 2032.

The announcement made much of the longevity of the partnership - "the extension marks 100 years since the start of Omega's relationship with the Olympic Games"; "2032 is an important milestone, as it will mark 100 years since the Olympic Movement was first able to count on Omega's timekeeping solutions" et cetera.

So I thought it would be interesting to write about the period, nearly 50 years ago, when the relationship might easily have foundered but for some creative corporate thinking on the part of Swiss business leaders. 

First, 1932: the Official Report of the Games of the Tenth Olympiad in Los Angeles does indeed record that: "Official timing in all events was done by means of thirty Swiss chronometers of the split-second type".

Said chronometers were "loaned to the Organising Committee and each was specifically tested for the Games and carried an official certificate as provided for in the rules of the International Athletic Federation". 

A helpful photograph on page 94 enables readers to compare one of these chronometers with an "ordinary watch".

Since then, as this week's announcement stated, "Omega has served as official timekeeper 27 times".

Omega has been a common presence at Olympic Games ©Getty Images
Omega has been a common presence at Olympic Games ©Getty Images

Eagle-eyed Olympic fans will have noted that there have been 38 editions of the Games, Summer and Winter, since 1932, and that there must therefore have been occasions when timing has been handled by someone else.

One of the events which Omega missed was the Munich Games of 1972, when timing duties were performed by a combination of Longines, a Swiss rival, and Germany's Junghans.

A photograph I came across in a Swiss newspaper from the following year shows a youthful and heavily-sideburned Sepp Blatter - "head of the Longines delegation" - receiving an award for the company's contribution from Munich burgomeister Georg Kronawitter.

"The Swiss delegation to the Munich Olympics has won another medal," the text proclaimed, "and while it may be the last chronologically speaking, it is not the least important".

I also happened to discuss this subject in a recent interview with Denis Oswald, the Swiss IOC member, who participated in those Munich Games and subsequently became a leading official in the Swiss timekeeping industry as well as President of the International Rowing Federation (FISA).

According to Oswald, Omega had been responsible for time-keeping at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City - at which, incidentally, he picked up a bronze medal in the coxed four - but had then "decided to stop".

The company "came to the conclusion that it was I think too expensive for one firm to do it," Oswald told me.

"It needed a lot of equipment, a lot of people."

One wonders whether this decision was linked to the last-ditch anti-commercialisation campaign being waged by Avery Brundage, the ageing IOC President who was in his last term in office.

At a meeting of the IOC's Executive Board in March 1969, not long after the Mexico Games, Brundage drew attention to "the fact that on all photographs taken during Olympic competitions the name Omega is clearly visible".

The American thought, moreover, that "the IOC ought to eliminate the trade name "Omega" and should broach talks with the TV companies in order to control this practice".

A Longines clock at the Innsbruck Winter Olympic Games in 1964 ©Getty Images
A Longines clock at the Innsbruck Winter Olympic Games in 1964 ©Getty Images

Obviously, controlling "this practice" in the way suggested would have undercut dramatically the publicity value derived by the timekeeper from offering its services for the Olympic Games.

Longines duly stepped in, along with Junghans, for the 1972 Olympics, only to draw a similar conclusion, seemingly even before the Games had taken place.

The same newspaper spread that featured that memorable photograph of future FIFA boss Blatter suggested that the Munich Games involved a net cost to Longines of around CHF2.7 million (£2.1 million/$2.7 million/€2.4 million).

To satisfy the needs of basketball, boxing, cycling, fencing, gymnastics, judo, handball, weightlifting, swimming, wrestling and modern pentathlon, the article in Tribune de Lausanne/Le Matin stated the Swiss group installed 10 tonnes of equipment, valued at CHF2 million (£1.5 million/$2 million/€1.8 million).

With foreign competition thought to be ready to step in to try to use top sporting events to muscle in on Switzerland's longstanding supremacy in the market for top-of-the-range timepieces, in spite of the cost, it looked like the Olympics might be lost to Swiss watchmakers.

It was at this point that the trade association, the Fédération Horlogère, headed by a Neuchâtel-born diplomat and politician called Gérard Bauer, stepped in and, according to Oswald, "said we should not let it go" and "we have to think of finding a way to join forces".

This is exactly what happened, and on July 3, 1972 the alliance of convenience that was La Société Suisse de Chronométrage Sportif - Swiss Timing - was founded

In the grouping's initial guise, Omega and Longines each took 20 per cent of the capital, with the remaining 60 per cent in the federation's hands.

Financial institutions, public authorities and Swissair, as well as the watch-making industry, were all reported to have chipped in with contributions to the new body's operating budget for the first four years, underlining the extent to which it was viewed as a national interest project.

An exceptionally influential figure in the world of sport - Thomi Keller, President of both FISA and the General Assembly of International Sports Federations (GAIF) - was brought in to head up the new entity and, in November 1973, they secured the contract for the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games.

The rest, as they say, is history.