The signal to start the stopwatch lay in the smoke from the starting pistol. Maurice Nicholas is 90 years old and giving me a lesson in timekeeping. The former senior timekeeper speaks clearly and is as precise as the stopwatches he once used. In the 1950s in Singapore, 10 timekeepers would measure human achievement in a single race – three for first place, three for second, three for third, one for fourth.

It’s when I asked: When did you start the stopwatch?

“When you see the smoke,” he said. The sound takes a while to travel.

These days the starting blocks have sensitive sensors in them while the Longines photo-finish camera at the Commonwealth Games “can take up to 10,000 images per second for a resolution of 2,048 pixels” says Matthieu Baumgartner, the Longines vice-president of marketing.

Time does not move faster but athletes do. A second is still one-sixtieth of a minute but it has been redefined by athletes who can move multiple metres and make complex decisions in no time. As LeBron James once said, “For me, a second is a long time”. In it, a lifetime happens.

In Birmingham, in the women’s 200m butterfly, Abbey Connors came a dreaded fourth by 0.04 of a second and in the cycling men’s tandem B sprint finals, one race was decided by 0.009 of a second. It is best to watch such sport and not blink.

The clock makes us tick. At this Games, and every day in sport, we’re hostage to it. In our peripheral vision we’re always alert to the vanishing seconds as Rafael Nadal gets ready to serve and Stephen Curry contemplates a shot. Which swimmer turned first in the 200m? Why is this referee giving so few minutes of stoppage time? We’re connoisseurs but also accountants.

The clock has no opinion and yet it brings tension because in most sports it is finite. Is there enough time for a goal or a knockout? Hope runs out as a clock does. Reputations are made by seconds and arguments lit. In the 1972 Olympic basketball final between the former Soviet Union and America, three seconds became the subject of books, a documentary (:03 From Gold) and unfinished debate.

But mostly the clock settles disputes over talent as it helps arrange the world into Faster, Higher, Stronger. Sport is a succession of brilliant acts of expression but all within a world ordered by the clock. Weightlifters have a minute to start their lift. Female gymnasts have up to 90 seconds on the floor. To err is to be penalised.

Both the body and the clock have hands and a face and are committed to the pursuit of precision. In 2012, James Magnussen lost the 100m freestyle at the London Olympics by 0.01 of a second and overwrought reporters wondered if defeat could be linked to the drag from his stubble. But it told us about margins and that even as science has helped forge sleeker athletes it has also designed machines complex enough to separate them.

In 1896, wrote the New Yorker, the stopwatch used at the start of the first Olympic marathon was ferried via bicycle to the finish line. A human with a timepiece is often history’s witness. When Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in 1954, there were five timekeepers and one of the stopwatches sold for £20,000 ($33,400) in 2015. Some times are more precious than others.

Just as ambition runs in the veins of athletes, numbers run through the 4,300km of cables – laid by Longines – that are the arteries of this Games. At the 1952 Olympics, a 20-minute pause awaited the 100m runners after a photo finish but now information is vast and fast. Speed of cyclists and split times of swimmers, all are rapidly available. The more we know, often the better we understand.

Last modified: August 6, 2022