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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 August, 2004, 10:05 GMT 11:05 UK
'Invisible' technology powers Olympics
By Jane Wakefield
BBC News Online technology staff

The years of preparation put in by the athletes taking centre-stage in Athens is mirrored by the dedication to getting the technology right.

The Technology Operations Centre
The nerve centre will monitor all the sporting venues
While accusations have been thrown around that the Games organisers started work late, the technology team have been busy for three and a half years to make sure the infrastructure that will power the games runs smoothly.

Before the snow had melted at the Salt Lake City winter Olympics in 2002, key technicians were already in Greece.

The number has now swollen to 3,400 members and their main responsibility will be getting the results out to officials, journalists and viewers watching the sporting extravaganza on TV.

Nerve centre

"Results is by far the most important thing we do," said Jean Chevalier, vice president for the Olympic Games Program at Atos Origin.

10,500 computers
900 servers
400 Unix boxes
4,000 result system terminals
2,000 fax machines and copiers
2,000 printers

The company is responsible for the technology not just at Athens, but at the winter games in Turin, Italy in 2006 and the Beijing summer games in 2008.

Atos Origin took over the role of providing the technology backbone to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) following the acquisition of SchlumbergerSema in January of this year.

Much of the technology from the Salt Lake City Games, which was provided by SchlumbergerSema, will transfer to Athens.

The tech team has built its very own Acropolis, the Technology Operations Centre, which will be the nerve centre for the Games duration.

Some 135 desks face 20 large plasma screens to keep technicians continually informed of the schedule and alert them to any faults or disruption.

A digital map of the Athens area shows which venues are currently in use and what technology is being deployed in each.

Vast intranet

The modern Olympics is very much a TV phenomenon. With four billion viewers scheduled to tune in, making sure the results and athlete information is available at the fingertips of broadcasters is essential.

You always have to do something, you can never quit testing and checking. It is not like we said two months ago that it is ready and then went to the beach
Jean Chevalier, Atos Origin

Atos has developed a system to display results in a fraction a second, before the broadcasters even hear the roar of the crowd.

There will be 1,500 terminals at 20 Games venues available to the 21,500-strong press pack.

Also available to journalists, athletes and IOC officials will be Info2004, an intranet with more than 50,000 pages of information, 11,000 biographies and historical results dating back to the first modern Olympics, held in Athens in 1896.

The logistics behind installing 10,500 computers and 900 servers in the 62 venues cannot be understated. Even though the tech team is now in what Mr Chevalier describes as a warm-up phase, there is still no time to relax.

"You always have to do something, you can never quit testing and checking," said Mr Chevalier.

"It is not like we said two months ago that it is ready and then went to the beach," he told BBC News Online.

The other key aspect of the tech team's job has been making sure the Games run smoothly.

Over 200,000 athletes, coaches, officials, staff and volunteers must be registered and a photo badge has to be made for each one.

Athletes that have trained for a lifetime cannot afford to be late for their event so making sure the transportation system is running smoothly requires a huge computer system in itself.

Because getting the technology right is such a mammoth task, there is little room for whiz bang gadgets.

Invisible systems

"This is not a games of technology, technology is there only to serve the games," said Mr Chevalier.

One of the plasma screens in the Technology Operations Centre
A digital map of Athens will show what is happening around the city
As a result, wireless technology will not be on show this year.

"We have not been brave enough to go down that route," said Mr Chevalier.

"The risk of frequency breaks scrambling systems was an option we did not even want to look at," he admitted candidly.

Unlike the athletes whose ultimate goal is to occupy the centre stage and be crowned with gold, for Mr Chevalier and his team the measure of success will be invisibility.

"The less you talk about us, the better. If the press talk about us, it will be because something has gone wrong so our visibility should be nil," he said.


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