With a cast of thousands and a budget of euro-billions, the Olympics is among the largest outsourced IT contracts on offer. Forget the ‘taking part’ Olympic ethos, the bi-annual global event is nice work if you can get it.

Aside from the arduous task the International Olympic Committee (IOC) faces in finding a host nation – while wading through a sea of weighty goody-bags – getting what it needs from a main IT integrator and a varied assortment of willing IT partners is also a task-and-a-half, but knowing what is not wanted is easier. IOC president Jacques Rogge says: “The Olympic Games could not happen without the use of information technology.” And reliable service is key to this.

Hooked on classics

New cutting-edge technology is not at the heart of next month’s winter games (10 – 16 February). As bizarre as it sounds, Windows 2000 and not XP is the operating system of choice. Despite the advent of RFID and mobile technologies which would be well suited the variety and complexity of the tasks, neither will be in evidence during any aspect of the competition.

The memory of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics is still fresh, where an unfortunate but costly episode left IBM with an estimated $80 million worth of egg on face. Outdated, incorrect scores and information and other well-publicised ‘glitches’ were totally unacceptable and any subsequent IT integrators, partners and suppliers had to ensure that the fiasco was never repeated. Despite an act of contrition and much improved delivery at the 1998 Nagano winter games the damage to IBM’s reputation was done.

As a result, ‘mature technology’ and the recycling or ‘reuse’ of technology that has worked in the past is where it is at. With everything working and 100,000 man-hours of tests later, both the IOC and Turin Olympic organising committee (TOROC) are confident.

Logistically, having to deploy so much over such a wide area for such a short period of time requires multiple testing but it makes for better risk management and the likelihood of Atlanta not being repeated. It also makes sense that the IOC farm out work. Jean-Benoît Gauthier, director of technology for the IOC, says: “Technical rehearsals are an integral part of the IT preparations, which in turn is crucial for the smooth running of the games itself – it will be invaluable when it comes to the real event.”

IT in major sporting events centres on two basic service needs, integration and delivery that are fast, efficient and free of disruption. If executed correctly and without incident it makes a brilliant marketing tool – if it goes badly it becomes a poisoned chalice. TOROC earmarked 300 million of its euro 1,338m budget to technology for its winter games. How much of that figure has the IT systems integrator Atos Origin’s marker on it is unknown. Reports suggesting a euro 1bn budget for four games may be exaggerated but the benefits and returns from fulfilling the contract will come from the fluidity of its delivery in the eyes of both existing and potential new clients.

Philippe Verveer, IOC technology director says, “With the huge increase in cyber attacks and computer viruses, IT security is the top priority. At Turin it is significantly improved from Salt Lake City.”
Such is the level of risk the game’s main integrators have been required to build extra security into every stage of the process. The IOC will stick with the same company right up to London 2012. Atos by its own admission will use the project as a ‘research centre and training ground’ to help improve the skills of its employees. While aiming to satisfy the IOC’s current needs, managing the games in Italy and China will clearly improve visibility and could lead to business expansion in those regions.

Herculean task

The list of to do’s is daunting. It includes implementing an ERP system providing accreditation, transportation and accommodation schedules, sports qualification and information protocols. The IT infrastructure alone comprises over 450 Intel-based servers and Unix boxes, 4,700 computers, 700 printers, 1,000 CIS and 800 intranet terminals.

This is just a small part of the overall IOC brief. Relaying results, athlete information and such like via information diffusion systems (IDS) to the various media and internet viewing public is the part most people see.

Round-the-clock network operation monitoring with teams available to rectify or deal with any issue that arises is also a key service demand. The Italian security architect behind Turin was also part of the team that handled the 2004 Athens games. There, alerts were numbered in the thousands. Of those, 22 were deemed as critical but only two were viewed as serious attempts to compromise the system. Even so, so delicate is the operation and the fear of failure, that a third tier of protection exists at a secret secure location, which should guarantee a seamless transfer and a continuous delivery in the event something does happen.

Verveer says: “The success of the games is very visible. It is important to be perfect in what is visible. For example, it is much more important to have the timing [systems] perfect than worry about a bug in the accounting systems.”

Behind the scenes the actual IT team comprises 250 staff from the main integrators working alongside 1,100 volunteers and personnel supplied by Olympic IT partner companies thrown together in true ‘Olympic Family’ tradition. Even though success or failure is judged on the 16 days of winter sports competition, work is already underway in Beijing for the much larger 2008 Olympics and a forward looking eye is being cast over Vancouver 2010 and London 2012.

The business benefits for those involved should allow for an expansion of operations before and after the implementation of good sound business-linked IT practices can only bode well for the industry – provided of course Turin proves a gold medal performance. Performance not based on radical innovation but reliability.