Olympic IT: the risk and the glory

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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