The Paris 2024 Olympic Games are right around the corner - and the newest Omega "Limited Editions" are hitting the stores. Thus, I thought we should take a closer look at the last Century's timepieces honoring theOlympic Games. Importantly, Omega wasn't the only watch brand responsible for timing the Olympic Games! And it also wasn't the only brand in charge after 1932. Another less-shocking-shocker: I'm not a big fan of what this genre has become in the 21st Century and I'll come to that a little down the road...

June 05, 2024

Watches of the Olympic Games & What they stand for

  


Marcus Siems     Marcus Siems @siemswatches
    Collector, Author, Data Analyst


  

[Highlights] Olympic Games, their watches, and the lack of appeal today
- Since 1896 the Olympics were timed by multiple brands including Longines, Heuer, & Omega -
- Omega Timing was the official timekeeper in 1932 but not(!) of all Olympics that followed -
- The first commemorative and commercial Olympic Watch was the Omega Seamaster XVI for Melbourne 1956 -
- [Opinion] However, the modern pieces have outlived their raison d'etre -

 

 

The Paris 2024 Olympic Games are right around the corner - and as the marketing machinery will soon take over celebrating the newest Omega Limited Edition watches - I thought we should take a closer look at the last Century's* timepieces honoring the single most prestigious sporting event.

One "shocker" up front: Omega wasn't the only watch brand responsible for timing the Olympic Games! And it also wasn't the only brand in charge after 1932 - as modern branding tends to imply. Another less-shocking-shocker: I'm not a big fan of what this genre has become in the 21st Century and I'll come to that a little down the road...

 

vintage 1950s Omega advertorial for the Olympic Games1952 Omega advertorial highlighting the timekeeping roles of the brand for the Olympic Games since 1932. Photo Courtesy of HIFI Archiv.

 

1) Timekeeping at the Olympic Games

Omega was responsible for the timekeeping at the Olympic Games 1932 & 1936, 1948 to 1960, 1968, kinda 1976/1980, and ultimately ever since 1988... Well, probably it would have been easier to point out the Olympics not featuring Omega Timing, which is pre-1932 (various), 1964 (Tokyo, Seiko), 1972 (Munich, Longines), 1976/1980 (Montreal & Moscow, Swiss Timing = Omega, Longines, & Heuer), and 1984 (Los Angeles, Longines)[1].

 

1932 Omega Stopwatch from the Olympic Games in Los AngelesA 1932 Omega Stopwatch from the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Photo Courtesy of Omega.

 

1a) 1956 - The First Commemorative Watch

But all this so far was the official timekeeping, which literally only mattered for the athletes (well and the people watching at home)... It wasn't until 1956 in Melbourne that Omega released their first special Olympic edition watch. And it wasn't random to pick the 1956 Games for such a first: In 1952 Omega received the Medal of Merit by the Olympic Committee for their outstanding service in the world of Sports[1].

 

Study of the 1956 Commemorative Omega Seamaster for the Melbourne Olympic GamesStudy of the 1956 commemorative Omega Seamasters for the Melbourne Olympic Games - two ref. 2850SC with the full-rotor automatic caliber 471. (Left) the pre-commercial version with the Cross of Merit (octagonal would the appropriate crown), and (right) the commercial iteration reading simply "XVI". Photos Goldammer Archives.

 

The watch was a Seamaster reference 2850SC... These came with the automatic full-rotor caliber 471, pink gold cases with "frog leg" lugs made by the Genevan artisans at Wenger (#1 hallmark) and interestingly in two versions. The first is a pre-commercial version featuring the Cross of Merit above 6o'clock on an ivory lacquered dial. The Olympic Rings can hereby be all-red or in all 5 colors**. This versions however, is extremely rare (only ~100 made) because Omega didn't actually hold the right to commercialise the emblem! And it was supposedly given to high ranking officials.

 

vintage 1950s Omega Advertorial for the Melbourne OlympicsA 1956 advertorial reads: "The trust, which Omega is granted all over the world, builds on the precision and technical excellence of their work". Advertorial Courtesy of HIFI Archiv.

 

The second version is the more common commercial iteration featuring only the Roman number 16 (XVI - for the 16th Olympics) above 6o'clock in faceted rose golden indices. However, both versions feature the Cross of Merit on the caseback medallion - the place you'd typically find the Omega Hippocampus on other Seamaster examples.

 

1b) 1968 - The Omega Speedmaster & Chronostop Mexico

This second commemorative watch(es) is already a bit of an oddball. It appears Omega branded a special edition of the Speedmaster reference 145.012 and potentially also Chronostop models as their Mexico '68 watches... However, nothing on these watches itself would make you suspect that it is a limited or special edition - no line on the back or the dial... The only clue is in the box (and the extract confirming the sale to Mexico in 1968):

 

The 1968 Omega Speedmaster for the Mexico OlympicsThe 1968 Omega Speedmaster for the Mexico Olympics. An inconspicuous ref. 145.012 that'll only tell it's history by the box it comes in. Photo Courtesy of Bulang & Sons.

 

1c) 1972 - Longines Conquest Monopusher

In 1972 - after an absence of 76 years[1] - Longines scoped Omega for the timing rights of the Munich Olympics in 1972. And Longines celebrated this accomplishment with a special and fashionable Conquest mono-pusher chronograph.

 

vintage 1970s Longines Conquest chronograph for the Munich OlympicsThe 1972 Longines Conquest mono-pusher chronograph for the XX Munich Olympics. Photo Courtesy of Fratello.

 

These blue sporty chronos with manually-wound Valjoux 236 movement are definitely more designed like a classic stopwatch than a wrist chronograph. What you might not know of me is that I used to be a youth swimming coach ... and I totally see me at the pool deck timing the kids with this piece. From a design perspective Longines absolutely nailed this one!

 

vintage 1970s Longines advertorial with a Ultra-QuartzLongines wasn't shy of showcasing their accomplishment - also when they didn't even have their official special edition watch in the advertorial. Advertorial Courtesy of HIFI Archiv.

 

1d) 1976 - Omega Seamaster Albatros

1976 marks not only the return of Omega but also the dawn of the Quartz era in Olympic watches. The Omega Seamaster ref. 196.0052 ST - the so-called Albatros. It's not only the first Quartz timer but also one of the most unusual Omega watches in ever! It's a large 47mm wide digital-analogue hybrid, a world's first! That means it came with a digitally displayed chronograph and an analog time display - and was basically a Quartz modified mechanical movement. It is further the only other watch - besides the 1956 Seamaster XVI - that features the Cross of Merit on the caseback (plus Omega only made about 15,000 of these behemoths).

 

The hybrid - digital and analog - Omega Seamaster Albatros from the 1976 Olympic GamesThe hybrid - digital and analog - Omega Seamaster Albatros from the 1976 Olympic Games. Photo Courtesy of The Chrono Duo.

 

1e) 1984 - Longines Gold Medal Pocket Watch and Wristwatch

The 1980 Olympics in Moscow have been a weird one - from both a commercial and athletic standpoint - and I couldn't find a special edition watch. But in 1984 for Longines launched pretty much the most 80s watches oozing Murica you could imagine for the Los Angeles Games. Well, actually two watches: a wristwatch and a "gold-medal" pocket watch.

 

A 1980s Longines advertorial featuring the official Olympic Watch for the Los Angeles GamesA 1984 Longines advertorial as the official timekeeper for the Los Angeles Games. It's 1980s West Coast USA so these are "Very Supple" and not "Very Subtle"! Photo Courtesy of Longines & Ebay.

 

1f) 1988 & 1992 - Omega Seamaster Polaris Chronograph

With the 1988 and 1992 Olympics it was again Omega's turn and they came out with two distinct Seamaster Polaris models: the DB 386.1232 (limited to 1000 pieces) edition for Calgary/Seoul and the 2591.50 for Albertville/Barcelona.

 

vintage Omega Seamaster Polaris two-tone watches for the Olympic Games in 1988 and 1992The two Omega Seamaster Polaris watches for the Olympic Games in 1988 (left) and 1992 (right). Photos Courtesy of Fratello & Hampel Auctions.

 

These Polaris models were quite fascinating as they combined titanium with a 2mm thick gold inlay and were originally (in 1982) designed by Gerald Genta[2]. I guess it shows the Zeitgeist well as these were still pretty much the creme de la creme of Omega's watchmaking in terms of precision - the 1988 edition for example featured an analog rattrapante chronograph with 1/100s steps!

 

1g) 1996 - Omega Seamaster 120 Atlanta

This will mark the last entry in our list and marks the introduction of the modern design language of Omega. For the Atlanta Olympics the brand issued a special Seamaster 120 in a limited edition of 300 pieces and still with a Quartz movement.

 

vintage 1990s Omega Seamaster 120 Quartz made for the Olympic Games in AtlantaThe 1996 Omega Seamaster 120 Quartz made for the Olympic Games in Atlanta. Photo Courtesy of Bernard Watches.

 

2) What they stand for

I'm putting a trigger warning up front because this is not going to be high praise of the "Olympic Watches" or rather their modern incarnation. If you're utterly fascinated by these pieces and maybe even adore the 2024 edition, please keep doing so! My two cents on the matter are just completely different...

If we take all the different pieces together we can probably come up with three categories of Olympic Watches. The first category are the original commemorative pieces, Omega's 1956 XVI, Longines 1972 Conquest, and the Longines 1984 Gold Medal watches are the three that come to my mind. These are watches that celebrate the connection between the brand and this quadrennial sport event. They are fun, they are cool, they are quite original designs.

 

The original Commemorative Olympic Omega Watch from 1956 - the Seamaster XVIThe original Commemorative Olympic Omega Watch from 1956 - the Seamaster XVI - it probably doesn't get any better than this. Photo Courtesy of Hodinkee.

 

The second category are the technological marvel watches that go hand in hand with actual precision timing. I would include all the Quartz watches of the 1970s & 80s in here. We might be snobby about "cheap" Quartz watches today but something like the 1976 Omega Albatros was the peak of horology at the time! And they were far from actually being cheap: A 1976 example would set you back over 2x the price of a brand new Speedmaster (ref. 145.022). Similarly, Omega's Polaris collection may be smiled upon today - but in 1988 measuring precisely to 1/100th of a second with a wristwatch was breathtaking!

 

A vintage 1970s Omega Albatros with hybrid analog-digital display and movementNot my cup of tea aesthetically but it rightfully deserves a place among the cooler concept watches of the last Century. Photo Courtesy of Watch Out Italy & Hairspring Watches.

 

And finally the third category is what I would simply refer to as merchandise. And not in a good way (if there is one). These pieces are redundant, unimaginative, and showcasing everything that is wrong about "limited editions". In other words, these pieces are simple money grabs of the "I like to associate myself with flair" type of esteem simply stemming from selective marketing rights. These pieces start to head into this direction probably from the 1992 or 1996 Olympic Games onwards but are on full display at least since the 2008 Beijing Games - you know when Omega finally got the ultimate bragging rights to be The "Official Olympic Timekeeper since 1932"[1].

Beyond the repetitiveness of these pieces what bothers me potentially even more is who is ultimately wearing these watches. It's effectively never athletes but spectators, bystanders and (sorry-not-sorry) Omega fanboys!

 

1968 Omega Advertorial about the collaboration with the Olympic Games in Mexico1968 Omega advertorial pointing out timing the Olympic Games in Mexico. Photo Courtesy of HIFI Archiv.

 

The Olympic Games are the pinnacle of sporting events. I know from an athlete's perspective how exhausting it is to go through a lifetime focused on one activity and a full 4-year Olympic cycle of preparation to hopefully be at your peak performance level for maybe one race or match***! But these athletes don't wear watches!

What about tennis, golf and racing? Well, those are among the sports were most money is spent from advertisement****. The truth of the matter is athletes have to get paid big bugs to wear these pieces because: Wristwatches are detrimental to athletic performance!

Thus, as long as the modern Olympic watches stay self-referential cash cows I don't see any reason to have them at all. However, I also don't argue that there's no space for Olympic commemorative watches. First, why not celebrate actual milestones in how the Olympics are timed and conducted? Omega Timing does introduce cutting edge technology to improve sporting events all the time... it just doesn't show in their not-so-special editions.

 

The introduction of the swimming touchpads at the 1967 PanAmerican GamesActual footage from 1967 PanAmerican Games - These were the launch and the testing grounds for Omega's groundbreaking touchpads to time the swimming events. A giant leap forward. Photo Courtesy of Omega.

 

Let's rewrite history and take the 1968 Mexico Speedmaster for example. Omega did actually introduce the touchpads in the swimming competitions. That's a technology that completely revolutionized the sport. So why not incorporate a similar technology into your wristwatch? I too swam hundreds of races finishing on these touchpads. It's a commercial no-brainer to me and a huge chance missed by Omega...

A second avenue to go down is actually gifting special (and non-commercial) watches to podium athletes at the Games. You can even make them in the corresponding metal - gold, silver, bronze - and/or engrave the event those are handed out for. It would probably even help out Omega on the secondary market... Beyond the point how cool and appropriate for The Sports Event this would ultimately be.

This leaves me with only one thing to say: Omega, put your money where your mouth is and start making some actually commemorative watches again!

 

 

* Not the timing instruments - the actual commemorative watches.

** The quality of these 5-colored dials (like [here] or [here]) isn't exactly up to the standard of the white and red iterations and also not really consistent. Might be some prototyping and Omega still figuring out the formula ... or some shadier things. Unfortunately, I can't add to this conversation other than my personal suspicions.

*** Before you start googling - Yours truly never made any Olympic roster. I've been a second-tier national level athlete with a top finish of 5th at German Championships. But that's been good enough to trying and at least living the perspective of making it to the Olympics and also competing against and practicing among some of the world's best athletes. And that was FUN!

**** In an analogy I'd go so far to say that as the Olympics are an event for "amateur athletes" it is compatible with the double standard in the NCAA. A lot of money flows but the actual athletes don't really see much of it.

 

References

[1] Feature: When Omega Lost the Olympics; Watchfinder & Co [Link]

[2] The Best Omega Watches From the 1980s; Jorg Weppelink, Fratello [Link]

 

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