The Greatest Show On Earth!
No, we’re not talking about the 1952 Academy Award winning movie!
“The Olympics—a lifetime of training for just ten seconds!”
At the 1936 Summer Olympics
Once every four years, the world celebrates the only true global sporting event there is—the Summer Olympic Games. With a whopping 4 billion people expected to watch at least part of the events live or on the news, it’s by far “The Greatest show on Earth”. Whether you watch it for love of sports, or just to cheer your countrymen on, hoping they win more medals than last time—the fact remains, you will be watching.
World records are often smashed at the Games, personal bests almost always bettered, and heroes are often created overnight and showered with gifts and praise from their countrymen. Of course, sometimes, the Goliaths of certain sports are felled by a lesser known David or two, and Dream Teams often have nightmares for years to come—caused by losing to minnows or the underdogs. The Olympic Games inspire athletes from all over the globe to perform out of their skin, and brings elation and sorrow to billions worldwide—and this is the draw of it all!
However, while you’re sitting in the comfort of your home, watching TV and cheering your country on, or while sifting through the temporarily bloated sports pages to see the previous day’s results, try and also understand what exactly goes into the organisation of such an event.
Hidden away, behind all the muscular and sinewy athletes that are splashed on every screen or page, are thousands of professionals—hardware and software, networking, broadcast specialists, cameramen and women, etc. All of these people are involved in the event of their lives, some of them for the first time, some seasoned professionals, all of them unsung heroes, of sorts, who work night and day to ensure that everything works just so.
As most of you will testify, technology is seldom fool-proof, with crashes, bugs and more afflicting our gadgets and PCs on almost a daily basis. Yet, thousands of technology professionals at the Olympics have just one task—ensuring that there are no hiccups. With redundant systems for redundant systems, it’s all very hectic and nerve-wracking. Take for instance the 100 m dash, which is an event that almost every sports enthusiast watches with excitement. It is, after all, the quest to be the fastest sprinter on Earth for the men and women who qualify and race. However, imagine telling Usain Bolt to re-run his world record breaking 100 m dash (9.72 seconds), because the timing system was broken, or even postponing events because of technical failure? Unthinkable! Unlike the athletes, who can lose this time and still come back and take the glory four years (or four minutes) later, the companies involved in providing expertise and the equipment might not get any second chances.
All through August, the world looks towards China for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Already shrouded in controversy because of China-Tibet political problems, this time the Games are bigger than ever before—they will be bigger in the future as well, with new technologies, innovations and more eyeballs watching. As we mentioned earlier, about 4 billion people will watch 10,708 athletes from 205 countries compete for medals in 302 events. It’s not like there’s this one big Olympic stadium where everything happens either. The games are held across 7 cities, and 37 venues, which makes it a networking and management nightmare.
In Good Company
So who is really looking after all the technology that runs the Games? The worldwide IT partner for the Games is Atos Origin (AO), an international IT services company. They’ve been handling the Games since Greece 2004, and have partnered with other specialists to provide services to the Olympic Games. AO is a company with annual revenues of 5.4 billion dollars (over Rs 23,000 Crore), and has just one job—to provide a “critical, but invisible, IT system” for the Games. AO oversees the complex designing and building of IT infrastructure in all of the venues at Beijing 2008. They’re also in charge of the digital security—physical security for IT equipment—as well as digital security to protect against hackers. After all, hacking the Games would be a crowning moment in any hacker’s life. During the Games, AO will command a team of over 4,000 IT professionals, making sure that everything goes according to plan, and right on schedule. They know they have no second chances!
AO also runs all the various systems associated with the Olympics, the largest of which is the Games Management System which encompasses every last detail such as who has permission to enter which areas of which venue (players, coaches, judges, etc.), managing the transport arrangements of all athletes, coaching staff, media personnel, etc., the entire qualification system for athletes, planning liaisons between medical personnel and athletes (mandatory drug testing, treating injuries, etc.), the human resources requirements for all Olympic officials and volunteers, and much more. From the broadcasting side, AO will also be behind Information Diffusion Systems, which in English means that AO will manage Info2008—a wireless intranet system that’s made available to all media personnel and everyone involved in the Games. It’s already impressive that this huge repository of information available to anyone with the right clearance at the click of a button, but what’s more impressive is that it’s available wirelessly, in multiple languages, and is always updated to ensure up-to-the-second freshness of information. There’s so much more we could give you in terms of details, but we’d have to span it over three or four issues of Digit. Suffice to say, it’s mind boggling the complexity of the technology systems that AO and their partners manage.
To give you an idea, all of these systems have undergone roughly 2 lakh hours of testing, to ensure that there are no glitches or bugs!
For Beijing 2008, some of the companies AO is partnering with are Lenovo (all hardware-servers and desktops), Omega (time keeping, scoring and providing results at the venues), Panasonic (all audio visual equipment), Kodak (everything imaging related) and Samsung (wireless communication equipment).
Now we’re hardware junkies, so when we found out that Lenovo was providing hardware, we just had to find out more...
We spoke to Leon Xie, the Director of Olympic Sponsorship and Deputy General Manager, Olympic Business Department, at Lenovo (try saying that in one breath!).
How much equipment or hardware, exactly, are we talking of here?
Xie: Over 30,000 pieces of Lenovo hardware are being used at the Games. That’s 12,000 desktop PCs, 10,000 17-inch flat panel displays, 2,000 15-inch touch screen displays, 2,000 desktop printers, 800 notebook computers, 700 servers, and 5,000 “showcase models”. (Showcase models are used in Internet lounges and sponsor partner programs.
Wow! So how much does all that equipment that you’re using cost?
Xie: We do not disclose financial terms of our sponsorships.
Fair enough. What sort of planning goes into a humungous project like this?
Xie: Over the past year, more than 20,000 pieces of Lenovo equipment have been put to the test. Each piece of equipment was configured for the particular sport or system it would be used in during the Games. Next came the actual “in the field” testing at the Good Luck Beijing athletic competitions. These test events were an arduous year-long process that tested all aspects of the hardware in actual sports events to make sure everything worked properly for the Games.
The tests ended only weeks ago in June. Lenovo’s computing systems supporting the Games were tested at 42 separate events, including Chinese volleyball club tournaments, World Cup qualifying matches, the Beijing International Marathon and International Tennis Federation events. The testing phase was vital because implementation of the complex Games computer infrastructure will take place literally overnight. The equipment used at outdoor competition venues was specially selected to withstand the high temperatures, dust and humidity of Beijing’s summer.
The next and final preparatory phase consisted of two technical rehearsals, conducted by BOCOG and involving all technology partners. The final rehearsal, which took place June 10-12, was an all-hands event. Lenovo and all the partners and their technician teams participated as BOCOG, put the teams through a series of real-life scenarios designed to prepare the entire support team for unexpected emergencies.
So how many venues was all this done in? And what equipment was field tested?
Xie: The physical equipment supporting the Olympic Games and the thousands of personnel who oversee it participated in “Technical Rehearsal 2”. The event simulated three of the busiest days at the Games, implementing all the technology and looking for anything that could possibly go wrong.
The rehearsal forced participants to practice managing an array of potential problems and scenarios—missing equipment, slashed cables, security breaches, power outages, etc. The purpose was to ensure the entire team is ready for any and every kind of problem and challenge they might face during the Games.
A total of 35 Olympic venues across 7 Olympic cities (including equestrian venues in Hong Kong) were involved. Nearly 95 per cent of Lenovo’s computing equipment at every venue was deployed over the three days of intensive practice and problem solving. Five product categories were tested, including desktop PCs, notebook PCs, servers, judges’ touch screens and printers.
How many Lenovo technicians are working at the Games, and how do you prepare them for something of this scale?
Xie: We have a core team of more than 10 experienced technology professionals who managed the systems at the Torino Games (2006 Winter Games), and dozens of other technicians and engineers who gained invaluable experience there. These experts, along with the rest of the nearly 600-person engineering team, have been involved in training classes for the past few months, where every one of them is trained on operating the PCs and printers to be used at Games. A sub-group was set up that will focus on servers which require an added layer of expertise, and these people received additional training.
The team has so far put in many thousands of man hours of technical services and support through the Good Luck Beijing sporting events and technical rehearsals. Their training involved both classroom lessons and hands-on testing in real-life situations.
How big a role do you have in worldwide broadcasting of the Games?
Xie: Lenovo is involved in the broadcast in several ways. First and foremost, Lenovo will provide 2,000 touch screen displays as part of the Commentator Information System. Media personalities will use these touch-screens to access the Commentator Information System during their broadcasts to get up to the minute biographical and statistical information about any athlete or team. In addition, Lenovo works directly with some of the broadcasters to provide equipment for their on-site operations.
Do we really need to tell you what Omega is famous for? They’re the official timekeepers for the Games, and with world records sometimes being bested by a millisecond or two, you can bet on how important their job is. Taking a race as an example, Omega has systems attached to the starter’s gun, cameras to monitor false starters, and photo-finish cameras at the finish. They also have about 450 employees on-site at the games, 70 of those huge public scoreboards, over 300 smaller scoreboards, and an overall 420 tonnes of equipment—175 km of optical fibre and cables, and 65 generators.
Over the years, Omega has developed a device called Scan‘O’Vision, which is a photo-finish camera that is connected to photoelectric cells to click pictures as soon as some part of an athlete’s body crosses the finish line. The technology has been fine-tuned to be able to provide a picture within seconds of the race finishing—very important to please today’s impatient TV viewers. It’s not just the finish, but also the start of the race that is monitored. Omega builds speakers into each starting block, so that all athletes hear the starter pistol at the exact same time. It also has sensors built into the starting blocks to help calculate the time between the starter pistol being fired (which also has a sensor attached to it) and the athlete reacting. Reactions are gauged by the pressure the athlete exerts on the starting block, and software calculates the acceptable human response time to the pistol. If the athlete begins his race even a fraction of a second faster than what is considered an acceptable reaction time, he or she is penalised for a false start, and the race restarted.
Omega is also responsible for measuring distances—for events such as long jump, shot put, javelin, etc. There’s no tape used these days; it’s all laser measurement, which is extremely precise. Lastly, Omega has also spent a lot of time modifying their scoreboards to display all letters of the Chinese alphabet—which we know is no small feat.
We wish we could go into more details about the Games and the technology that runs them, but we might never be able to stop. We’ve tried to give you an idea of how big of a feat it really is to manage the biggest sporting event on the planet, but to be honest, we’ve probably only scratched the surface at best. However, if possible, while you sit at home and grab your couch handles in excitement as some of the most exciting athletic competitions take place at Beijing 2008, try not to forget the thousands of men and women behind the scenes who are slogging day and night to ensure that everything at the Games works as well as one of Omega’s ridiculously expensive masterpieces. Let’s give them all a standing ovation and a medal, we say.