Olympic IT: the risk and the glory

Whether you cheer in the stands or from the couch, or even log onto the Net to get the latest stats, facts and feeds from the Games, there is a network of IT bringing the results home in a split second. We investigate the immense risks facing the official IT sponsors in the quest to be the best.

For IT sponsors of the largest sportsfes the world has ever see, a.k.a. the Sydney 2000 Olympics, there's an opportunity this September for more than just having their name flashed around the world.

And, as was painfully learned by IBM at the Atlanta Games of 1996, there's also an immense risk.

On one hand, the corporatised nature of the Olympics in the current age means the latest and greatest technology is not necessarily seen at the Games. Sponsorships and rights agreements can lock out technology opportunities. For example, due to the sale of broadcasting rights to the TV networks, there will be no live video-streaming allowed of Olympic events over the Internet, although event results will be directed immediately to the official Games Web site.

There is also the risk of making mistakes when pushing the boundaries of IT. IBM, in particular, is keen to "get things right" after the problems of Atlanta (see "One steamy September: what went wrong in Atlanta?").

"IBM will implement technology that is proven and stable, so it can run the Games for 17 days," assures Natalie Harms, IBM's Olympics communications manager. "But the way we are implementing it is very innovative, making the best of Net technologies."

It's the message that IBM, the key technology partner for Sydney 2000, has to push: innovation without risks. SOCOG wants technology that will work rather than solutions that push the envelope of what is possible.

At the outset, Sydney 2000 was labelled the "green" Games, but almost every Olympic Games should be the "technology" Games. The sheer scale of such an event and the global audience demanding to see it drives attempts to produce more accurate recording of event results, and more efficient communications for those staging and reporting the Games. Information technology is SOCOG's biggest single expenditure item.

Is there an official policy that the Olympic Games will always showcase leading-edge information technology?

"The answer depends really on the different approaches of different [Olympic] cities at different times," according to Ian Reineke, CIO for SOCOG. "It was not the case that it was planned that Sydney be a showcase for leading-edge technology. Essentially, there was a freeze at the end of 1999; any technology not on the market then was naturally not considered for implementation."

SOCOG has relied on decidedly Internet-free (if not IT-free) methods of selling Games tickets: by phone, largely; by mail after completing coupons; or even at "bricks and mortar" box offices, so sports fans can "emerge with tickets in their hands", according to the official Olympics Web site.

For a brief period in July 1999, SOCOG accepted ticket ballot applications via the Internet, selling over $18 million worth of tickets. IBM is keen to point out that the technology is in place for online ticket sales. But whether or not it's used "is more about policy and what is the most equal way of selling tickets", according to Harms.

The challenge of coordinating sales from multiple methods - phone, newspaper ballots (the major newspaper publishers are also Olympic sponsors) and Internet sales - drives the decision on technology, according to John O'Neill, SOCOG's ticketing communications manager.

"There's an operational assessment as to what is sensible. The view was that those mechanisms [newspaper ballot forms, phone orders and ticket offices] were considered adequate."

At the time of writing, SOCOG was about to start selling tickets in real-time via the Internet - fewer than 80 days before the whole shebang gets underway and after more than 60 per cent of available tickets have already been sold.

The Rings of business

The upside of IT involvement in the Olympics is that corporate sponsorship means IT companies can still display their wares on a world stage, and be associated officially with the Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius - Faster, Higher, Stronger. These are values any IT marketer can appreciate.

IBM will largely rely on the official Sydney 2000 Web site to be the public face of its Olympic efforts.

"It's a very big part of our showcasing," says IBM's Harms.

With the increasing number of Internet users, even since the Nagano Winter Olympics of 1998, IBM is predicting 1 billion page impressions (about 6 billion hits) during the site's lifetime.

But behind the scenes, IBM will be doing plenty of corporate sales work. "Our marketing is quite targeted. We do a lot of work with customers and business partners," says Harms.

This is when IBM sits down with a potential customer and basically says, "Your information processing needs are not unlike that of the Olympics - come and look what we're doing for them!"

Sydney 2000 will be IBM's 11th Olympics - and its last. Big Blue pulled the plug after a 1998 review of what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was expecting from IBM, compared to what IBM was expecting in return for its involvement.

"The investment couldn't justify the marketing return," according to Harms, "and that's what sponsorship is about."

After Sydney, the IOC will return to the consortium approach for IT solutions, last used in Barcelona: Gateway will supply hardware and software, Seiko will handle timing, Wige-Mic from Germany will take care of results distribution, and the UK-based Sema Group will handle systems integration.

The technology players

Big Blue is the big technology player for the Olympic Games; its official title is Worldwide Information Technology Partner and the Official Provider of Internet Technologies for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.

In all, approximately 9000 IBM PCs and ThinkPads and 700 printers will be connected to the Games network. Event results will be delivered in real-time, supplied to scoreboards and the system serving commentators and press. IBM is also responsible for integrating the technologies from other providers.

The three core systems of IBM's solution are the Games Management System, the Results System, and INFO, an intranet-based resource for sharing information around the "Olympic family" (including 15,000 media personnel).

As one example of the detail in such a massive project, the Commentator Information System will run OS/2 server and Warp. Available for 10 sports, it will give commentators touch-screen access to real-time results, statistics and medals data.

IBM will also build the FanMail Web site and Surf Shack. FanMail is an e-mail service by which the public can reach the Olympic athletes. It debuted in Atlanta with 100,000 messages sent, a number that tripled in Nagano. There will be a Surf Shack for the athletes in the Olympic Village where they can read and respond to FanMail (and even build their own Web sites), plus two public Surf Shacks.

And the official Olympic site is an IBM project; it's live now but will add real-time results, photos and biographies during the Games. Not surprisingly in this e-tailing age, it's a dot-com - www.olympics.com - featuring a store where you can "Go Olympic Shopping".

Our very own Telstra is the Official Telecommunications Partner for the Sydney 2000 Olympics and Paralympic Games, for which the carrier is building "one of the most comprehensive telecommunications networks in Olympic history". Telstra's services will include quick five-digit dialling, a 60-channel cable television service, and "enhanced" mobile coverage on the GSM and CDMA networks to cope with 500,000 visitors to Sydney. Some 30,000 new telephone lines will be installed, as well as 15,000 mobile phone services for media and officials alone.

A major technology push since the last Olympics has been wireless communications. Samsung Electronics, as the Official Partner of Wireless Communications Equipment (and Official Whitegoods Partner for SOCOG), will adopt a high profile at the Games. The company will provide approximately 25,000 mobile phones, pagers and two-way radio systems/terminals - up from 13,000 units provided for Nagano - to be used by SOCOG officials, volunteers, officials, athletes, spectators and media.

Samsung will also establish a "showcase pavilion" for its wireless technology at Olympic Park. Products on show to the public will include the "world's first" TV mobile phone; a 50g phone worn as a wristwatch; and an MP3-player phone with 32MB of flash memory.

Samsung and Telstra have already launched the official Samsung Olympic Games Phones. The SGH2400 (GSM) and the SCH620 (CDMA) handsets feature voice dialling, voice memo and built-in vibration, and they only weigh 90g.

Although Telstra is the official mobile network for the Games, you can connect the Olympic phone to other networks. However, the packaging and marketing remains an exclusive for Telstra's Millennium Network.

Panasonic is also a major sponsor and will supply sound, TV and video systems at Sydney's Games. The public face of Panasonic will be two massive Astrovision display screens at the Olympic Stadium at Homebush Bay. Panasonic provided Astrovision screens in Atlanta, but Sydney's screens will be 35 per cent larger - 12m high and 15.6m wide.

One steamy September: what went wrong in Atlanta?

Contrasting with the human sports stories of courage and excellence in Atlanta in 1996 were the human administration stories of poor organisation and stuff-ups. Prominent were the transportation problems - buses that didn't turn up, drivers who got lost, and even cases of athletes and journalists hijacking buses to get where they needed to be.

And caught up in it all was IBM, forced to endure a public relations nightmare that haunts it still on the eve of Sydney's September.

IBM first provided electronic data processing systems for the 1960 Olympic Winter Games in Squaw Valley, USA, but Atlanta was very different: IBM was given the contract to pull together all the required applications into common systems. It was to be a systems integration showpiece.

IBM's mission improbable was to record and distribute results for 271 events as they happened to officials, scoreboards, the media and millions of people logged onto the first official Olympic Web site.

There was a set-in-concrete deadline, unlike most software projects, which are allowed to slip until they become deliverable. There were 7000 PCs, 250 networks and about 100 mid-range boxes to manage, under difficult environmental conditions - the Atlanta heat was expected to melt routers and hubs, so multiple backups were organised.

But history will record that during the first 10 days of competition, one of the three systems that Big Blue developed from scratch - the one for distributing competition results to the press - awarded medals that it shouldn't have and announced new world records when the old ones hadn't been broken. Some of the problems were reportedly due to human error, as staff shortages meant volunteers were asked to enter competition results. Hundreds of journalists were denied their stories, and IBM couldn't have picked a worse user group to annoy. The remainder of the systems that IBM built went about their jobs largely without problems.

After reportedly spending $US80 million in 1996, the wash-up was a soiled reputation for a very large computer company. Then IBM had a problem-free Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998, setting all sorts of records for Web page serving along the way.

The moral of the story? When it works you're an IT star; when it doesn't, you have to wait four years to soothe the pain.

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