Seiko Olympic Timing - 1972 Sapporo Games

I am sure that most people are aware of Seiko’s involvement as the official timer of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics but just eight years later they were also the official timer for the 1972 Sapporo Olympic Winter games. The summer and winter games were held during the same year until 1994 when the winter games were moved to two years after the summer games. Seiko was also the official timer for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and the 1994 Lillehammer, 1998 Nagano and 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games.

I recently acquired a promotional folder for the ‘72 Sapporo Winter Games that appears to have been designed to provide to sporting associations and officials as well as the press. This folder is similar to the one I have detailed previously from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

The Sapporo folder details the different types of timing devices to be used in the games as well as how they will be deployed at specific events. Details of the starting devices, recording of lap events, the finish lines, printing recording and backup systems are all defined in the documents.

Despite learning a lot during their highly successful Tokyo Olympics, Seiko had a number of hurdles that needed to be overcome before they could meet the challenges of timing the winter games. The requirements for sports timing for the summer and winter games differs considerably due to the nature of the events and the conditions they are held under. The obvious difference for conditions is environmental with winter sports timing having to operate under much lower temperatures and the regular presence of water, ice, snow and wind. To cope with the extreme temperatures the devices had to be insulated against the cold and moisture. The other area of difference is that the general nature of the events pose a number of unique challenges. The majority of summer sports are held in a confined area where the starting and finishing positions can often be monitored from the same location. For winter events it is very common for the starting line to be out of view from the finish line, as it is located higher up the mountain, and it is impossible to be recorded with just a simple stopwatch. Other events also have multiple competitors on the course at the same time and this adds to the complexity of recording results.

To meet the challenges Seiko had to develop a whole range of new devices to ensure that they could reliably and accurately conduct their official timing duties. The use of electronic measurement was something that Seiko pioneered during the 1964 Tokyo games and this was now in commonplace use at top end sporting events globally. In addition to the reliable and accurate recording of results, the ability to instantly convey these to not only officials but also to viewers at the events and at home via broadcast television was now an essential requirement.

Seiko was awarded the role of official timer for the Sapporo Olympic Games in 1967, five years before event. This gave Seiko the time to be able to develop the specialist equipment required for the games. To test the equipment under real world conditions Seiko timed 32 different sporting competitions before the ‘72 games. As a full test for the Olympics a Winter Sports Week was held in Sapporo from February 7th to 14th, approximately one year before the games. The event attracted competitors from around the world as it gave them an opportunity to experience the local conditions they would expect to encounter a year later. To manage this test event Seiko provided twenty one different timing devices and scoreboards to be operated by the sporting officials and supported by Seiko technical staff.

It was at this Sapporo Winter Sports Week that the Seiko promotional folder was distributed to the different sporting officials from domestic and international sporting organizations and to the press. Inside the folder there were a range of different materials, these included a twenty page document detailing the different events that were to be held during the week and the different timing solutions that would be implements. Copies of this document were provided in English, French and German.

A copy of the complete English document can be seen by clicking on the image below.

There is a large fold out card with a table showing the different events and the timers that were planned to be used during the Winter Sports Week. This showed a total of 350 different devices spread across nine major sports categories.

The devices were distributed and allocated as shown in the table below.

Sport Departure Signage Meter Passage Sound Alarm Starting Gate Optoelectronic Device Speed Skating Optoelectronic Device MultiChannel Timer Printing Timer Speed Skating Printing Timer Seiko TV Timer Grip Switch Signal Distributor
Alpine (Downhill, Slalom, Grand Slalom) 3 3 4 11 3 8 6 5 3
Cross Country Sking 1 1 3 3 4 1
Biathalon 1 1 3 3 2 1
Jumping 5 2 2
Ice Hockey 1
Figure Skating
Speed Skating 2 2 1
Bobsled 1 9 2 3 9 1
Luge 1 1 9 1 3 8 1
Device Total 6 5 6 40 2 6 22 2 8 28 9
Sport Crystal Chronometer 952 Stopwatch Remote Control Devices Seiko Audience Display Device Ice Hockey / Figure Skating Display Photo Finish Camera Stopwatch 1/5 sec Stopwatch 1/10 sec Stopwatch 1/100 sec Crystal Chronometer 951 Operation Board Sport Total
Alpine (Downhill, Slalom, Grand Slalom) 45 8 13 112
Cross Country Sking 2 2 30 3 1 51
Biathalon 2 2 20 3 1 39
Jumping 9
Ice Hockey 1 5 4 11
Figure Skating 1 2 20 23
Speed Skating 1 1 10 1 18
Bobsled 13 3 2 43
Luge 15 3 2 44
Device Total 4 4 1 2 1 2 110 28 20 44 350

Twelve months later during the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics there were 26 types of timing devices used for a total of 583 devices. These were connected by 100km of cabling across the event courses.

In the promotional folder there are a series of eleven product photos and situational images showing timing devices and Seiko’s production facilities.

Other documents included are a two page description of Seiko’s general operations detailing their 1970 production with over 7 million clocks and more than 13 million watches with approximately half of these exported.

A black covered booklet contains details of the intended timing solutions to the utilized during the 1972 Sapporo Olympics Winter Games. The first half of the booklet details the sports and the layout of the timing devices and backup systems to be used. The second half of the booklet contains details about the specific timing devices. The devices include starting gates and clocks, electronic optical sensors, printing timers, multichannel timers, scoreboards, hand held timers and a photo-finish system.

A copy of this complete document can be downloaded here.

To plan out your visit during the Olympics there was an included fold-out diary that also included a notes section. Inside the diary is a card with a schedule of the Olympic events.

Also included in the folder there is a set of matches with the Sapporo Games logo on the front, a a shot of a 1/100th second stopwatch on the rear. There is a card letting people know where they are able to view the latest Seiko models at their hotels at the event.

The timing devices shown in the Olympic booklet are also presented in a two page brochure with sixteen product names and dimensions.

A copy of this brochure can be downloaded here.

In the booklet there are a number of timing devices that stand out. The first set are the three mechanical stopwatches capable of recording in 1/5th, 1/10th and 1/100th of a second. The stopwatches are the same fundamental designs, with the 89ST series calibre, that were developed for the 1964 Olympics. The versions created for the Sapporo Olympics had a number of special design elements specifically for the winter games. The first obvious difference was the dial design, the stopwatches had a black face to increase the readability in the high contrast snow environment compared to the traditional white face. The other difference was the case material, to cope with the extreme temperatures the casing was aluminium and it was given a Teflon coating to prevent any build up of ice on the device. These mechanical watches were used as backup devices with the primary timekeeping conducted with electronic systems.

A new device designed for specialist sports timing was the Seiko Digital Electronic Timer. During the 1964 Tokyo Olympics Seiko introduced the first digital recording device to be used at the games with the Seiko Stop Clock. Due to the limitations of display technologies at the time the digital stopwatch showed the recorded time by displaying a light behind the correct digits on a dedicated display.

The digital electronic timer that was used at the Sapporo Winter Week in 1971 and the Olympic Games the following year, used a newly developed light emitting diode display. This display allowed the direct read out of the total time up to the maximum recording time of 9 hours, 59 minutes, 59 seconds and 99 hundredths. The use of LEDs for display was quite new at the time, you will note that the displays on other timing devices are utilizing nixie tubes.

The digital electronic timer weighed 430g and had a volume of just under 300c.c. The weight was able to be minimized by the use of a die cast aluminium case. All operations were performed via push buttons and the location, stroke and required pressure was selected to make the unit as ergonomically comfortable as possible.

To enable portable operation the timer was powered by two internal 5V 450mAH rechargeable batteries. If a longer is run time was needed an external (7AH) battery could be connected to a gold plated and lockable terminal. The internal batteries can be charged with the dedicated power supply in approximately 10 hours.

To ensure accuracy of the electronic timer the unit was fitted with two different internally developed and independently designed 204.8 KHz DT-cut quartz crystal oscillators. The crystals can be switched so that the timer could be used in conditions from +50°C or more to -20°C. The warm up time was less than 1 second and it had an accuracy guarantee of less than 0.2 seconds per day.

The other interesting device developed for the Sapporo Games was the Seiko TV Timer. This device was designed to allow viewers at home to be able to get live timing information directly from the official system as part of the television broadcast. The device connected to the main timing system and then presented live timing data on a pair of displays. Each display would show the competitors number in brackets and then the live time in minutes, seconds and hundredths of a second. As the system used nixie tubes for the display only minutes and seconds were displayed in real time, while sub seconds were displayed when a split or final time was shown.

The TV Timer had the read out located in separate boxes that could be positioned away from the main unit body. The displays had a black surround to allow them to be shot with a camera and then superimposed onto the live broadcast. An example of the TV Timers application can be seen in the following clip from the Men’s 500m Speed Skating.

Olympics Sapporo 1972 Speed Skating Mens 500m

Olympics Sapporo 1972 Speed Skating Mens 500m


This type of live timing revolutionised the viewing of sporting events and has become a required part of event broadcasts to this day. In addition to the television viewers the timing systems also interfaced with the large on course displays so that local spectators and competitors could also see the results as they were officially recognised.

The Sapporo Winter Week event in 1971 was a great success and demonstrated how Seiko would implement their timing solutions for the Olympics the following year. During the Winter Week events Seiko, in collaboration with the Sapporo Olympic Organizing Committee, produced a color 16mm film with a 20 minute duration, showing the various timing systems on a technical level. This was used to show both domestic sports associations and international sporting bodies how the timing systems worked and to give them confidence in the upcoming games. This production was produced in both Japanese for the domestic authorities but also English for the international market.

In another effort to promote the role of Seiko being the official timekeeper for the Games there was an international tour where the different cities that had previously hosted the Winter Olympic Games were visited and the mayor of each city was presented with a Seiko Five Sports Chronograph.

With all of this preparation Seiko went on to have a very successful Sapporo Games with no timing issues for the complete event. Seiko was also selected as the official timekeeper for the 1992 Barcelona Games, 1994 Lillehammer Games, 1998 Nagano Games and the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. Many of the core technologies developed for the 1964 and 1972 games have evolved and continue to be used today in top level sporting events and Seiko continues to have a dedicated sports timing group producing this specialist equipment and providing timing services at a top international level.


“Sapporo Olympic Games”, The Seiko Museum, Seiko Holdings Corporation,
”Olympics Sapporo 1972 Speed Skating Mens 500m”, YouTube, uploaded by SportsVideoPerson, 10 Oct 2009,
”Cover Photo <Seiko’s Digital Electronic Timer>”, The Horological International Correspondence, vol. 12, no. 133, June 1971, pp 234-235
”Olympics and Seiko Two Topics”, Suwa Seiko, no. 186, ‘71-6, June 1971, pp.24
Masaharu Nabata, The Seiko Book: The Real History of Seiko Watches, Town Mook Tokuma Shoten, 1999, pp.118