Seiko Type III Timing Printer
Seiko Timing Printer
In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the XVIII Olympiad, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”
日本語版:セイコー──時をとらえ、差をつける

In 1959, when Tokyo was awarded the XVIII Olympiad by the IOC, Seiko’s President, Shoji Hattori, was determined to make Seiko the official timer of the Olympic Games. In 1960, he sent a telegram to one of his watch design section managers, Saburo Inoue, with instructions that would forever change the fate of the Japanese watch company—”Intend to handle official timing duties. Go to Rome Olympics in August and observe timing procedures.”

Inoue was deeply skeptical of the idea, and for good reason. “I’d never seen timing devices for the Olympics,” he said. “I didn’t know how they used their stopwatches, or what types they would need. We couldn’t do computer simulations, so we had to work out every single thing by trial and error.”

But again, as explained in the 2012 The Daily Telegraph article, ignorance proved to be bliss.

In those days, it was the prerogative of the local organizing committee to select the company that would supply the timers, and it was likely they would choose the tried-and-true Swiss watchmakers—Omega or Longines. Up till then, they were the only firms trusted with ensuring accurate times in Olympic competition.

In contrast, Seiko’s experience in building timers specifically for sports was zero. Such was the confidence of Hattori and Japan at the time—that anything was possible if they tried.

Without assurance of a contract for the Olympics, Hattori asked his three group companies to work on Olympic-related projects: large clocks, stopwatches, crystal chronometers, and a new idea, a device that could print the times of competitors right after the end of a race. They were called printing timers, and this revolutionized the way results of competitions were determined.

In only two years, Seiko was producing sports stopwatches that passed the standards of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Technical Committee. In a track and field competition in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, the IAAF was witness to a successful test, as the Japanese-made stopwatches proved accurate and reliable.

Seiko had already successfully developed quartz technology for small watches, and used this crystal technology for long distance races, like the marathon among others. Developing this quartz technology was key to developing Seiko wristwatches of the future that would stay accurate over longer periods of time.

More significantly, perhaps for the athletes, was Seiko’s development of the printing timer, a machine that would electronically time and print the results of an event, up to 1/100 of a second for track events.

This machine had a significant impact on a high-visibility competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics—the women’s 80-meter hurdles final.

On October 19, at the National Stadium, Karin Balzer of Germany and Teresa Cieply of Poland settled into their starting blocks. When the pistol shot rang, an electric signal was sent via wire to a printing timer, as well as a signal to a camera that would take special photo finish pictures, and a signal to a large spectator clock that set the second-hand in motion.

Karin Balzer wins 80 meter hurdle
Karin Balzer of Germany (3rd from right) and Teresa Cieply of Poland (169); from the German book “Olympia 1964 Tokio,” by Maegerlein, Heinz

In a stunning finish, Balzer, Cieply, and Australian Pam Kilborn hit the tape seemingly in a dead heat, all three timed by officials at 10.5 seconds. Despite numerous officials with hand stopwatches that measured in tenths of seconds, officials could not determine a winner.

The officials preferred not to hand out three gold medals, and fortunately, had a fallback plan—the latest timing technology from Japan.

When the runners arrived at the goal, a picture was taken by a slit camera, manufactured by Japan Photo Finish Co. Ltd. After thirty seconds, the image’s negative was transmitted as a reflected image, and converted in three minutes to a positive print. The information from Seiko’s printing timer was integrated into an image noting times in hundredths of seconds. The photo would show not only the athletes, but time, and thus the order in which they finished.

Thanks to the printing timer, it was revealed that Balzer completed the race in 10.54 seconds, 0.01 seconds ahead of Cieply, who was also only 0.01 seconds ahead of Kilborn. While the IAAF officially recognized times to the tenth of a second, in this case, they accepted the recorded electronic time to the hundredth.

The printing timer contributed mightily to the evolution of timed sports, and led to the creation of the famed, global printing company—EPSON—its name a simple mash-up of the words “son of electronic printer.”

1964 was Seiko’s time.

1964 was Japan’s time.

Ikuko Yoda_Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha 1
Ikuko Yoda, from the magazine Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha
Ikuko Yoda (依田郁子) did not make the team to go to the Rome Olympic Games in 1960. So she went to Lake Sagami near Mt Fuji, took a large amount of sleeping pills, and attempted to end her life. However, she did not succeed.

Running the hurdles had become her life, and competing and winning in the Olympics was perhaps a way to make her complete. Recovering from the pain of Rome, she may have seen redemption in Tokyo, and recovered enough from her suicide attempt to begin training again. Over that 4-year period, Yoda set and re-set the Japan record for the 80-meter hurdles 12 times, becoming a powerful track and field hope for Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

During the Tokyo Games, photographers tracked her every move. The famed director, Kon Ichikawa, had his movie cameras focused on Yoda more than other competitors for the film, Tokyo Olympiad. And Yoda ran excellently, easily making the cut in the first round of heats, running a personal best 10.7 seconds. In the semis, she again ran the course in 10.7 seconds and made it to the final 8.

In one of the closest finals in any Olympic foot race ever, Karin Balzer of Germany and Teresa Cieply of Poland finished the 8-meter race in 10.5 seconds, although Balzer was declared the winner. Pam Kilborn of Australia finished third with a time of 10.6 seconds. With a time of 10.7 seconds, Yoda finished fifth.

No doubt, this was a fantastic time and finish. In fact, she’s still the only Japanese female to enter the finals of any individual short-distance race in the history of international competition.

But she could not outrun her demons.

Ikuko Yoda_Asahi Graf_Oct 23
Ikuko Yoda, from the magazine Asahi Graf_Oct 23
After the 1964 Olympics, Yoda married. She had children. And as she entered her forties, she began to suffer from health issues. In 1983 she entered the hospital for knee and heart issues. And on October 14 of that year, nearly 19 years to the day when she fought but came in fifth in the 80-meter hurdles at the Tokyo Games, she hung herself in her own home.

She left no note. But she suffered from depression, and apparently had problems reconciling her images of perfection in whatever she was doing, and the reality around her. Here is how Robin Kietlinski, the author of Japanese Women and Sport explained it.

In spite of the paper-thin difference separating Yoda’s finishing time from those of the three medal winners, she had an incredibly difficult time handling the fact that she had trained so hard and did not come away with a medal. She was frequently described as a perfectionist (kanzenshugisha, kanpekishugisha) who could not bear when things did not go exactly as she planned. At a press conference immediately following the conclusion of the Tokyo Olympics, Yoda caused quite a stir when she reported that ‘I do not want to go through the pain of racing a second time. I will be retiring now. I do not even want to look at a track again.’ Shortly thereafter, she married a professor at the Tokyo University of Education (now Tsukuba University) and fully devoted herself to being a good housewife and later a caring mother to her children. According to her husband, she was as much a perfectionist when it came to running the household as she had been during her running career.