Oh dear, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. A sponsor of the Olympics since 1960, and the technology supplier since Los Angeles ’84, IBM Corp has had a nightmare first week at the games in Atlanta. IBM used the Olympics in a series of television ads in the US, using the spoof British heavy […]
Oh dear, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. A sponsor of the Olympics since 1960, and the technology supplier since Los Angeles ’84, IBM Corp has had a nightmare first week at the games in Atlanta. IBM used the Olympics in a series of television ads in the US, using the spoof British heavy metal band Spinal Tap. While musing about how the band are going to get the logistics of their tour sorted out, lead guitarist Nigel Tufnell shouts above the din that they’d better get in IBM, they’ve been doing it since the sixties, just like the band. But the Atlanta effort has resembled one of Spinal Tap’s collapsing stage sets or exploding drummers rather than a finely-tuned information system. And the shambles in Atlanta has also taught us that there’s no recreation without transportation. You’ve all heard by now the stories of the problems MARTA, Atlanta’s mass transit system has had trying to navigate around the city that it is supposed to serve. Bus drivers happily telling reporters that its the first time they’ve ever been to Atlanta; the woman driver who burst into tears when asked to drive down the freeway, and the fearsome British womens’ rowing team, who told a driver – en route to the hockey – to shut up and drive them to the rowing. But IBM’s glitches are what concern us. Of all the groups at Atlanta to upset, the worldwide news organizations were the wrong ones to choose. The company has seven different systems ‘working’ at the games, well, six actually, as the results feed to the world’s media has fallen at the first and looks like it’ll have to be taken away and shot. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) got so annoyed at the series of well-documented cock-ups that CEO Lou Gerstner’s Sunday lunch was left to get cold as he had to report to the IOC two days after the games started, head bowed and say he was sorry and he would do his best to fix it. At the center of it all is the network that was woefully under-powered. IBM had provided, get this, 9,600kbps modems for some of the lines, and had to upgrade them to 38,400kbps. The data was also serially transmitted, rather than broadcast. The first day of testing? Inevitably it was the first day of the games. IBM claimed it didn’t fully understand the clients’ – the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) – needs. Well if IBM doesn’t, at its fourth attempt, then you can be sure nobody else does either. There were rumors inevitably flying around Atlanta – which is more than the data was doing – that the IOC would be looking elsewhere for technology for the millennium games in Sydney, but they remained just rumors. A senior IOC official said last week that if Atlanta was subject to the same criteria being applied to those wishing to host the 2004 games, it would not even get past the first round, and in future it seems likely that no city will be allowed to host without the government underwriting at least some of the cost. Technology accounted for $233m of the $1,700m total costs. IBM put up $40m to be a sponsor, and another $40m to pay for the technology. There were a few comic moments worth recording, like the three-round boxing tournaments that ‘ended’ in the fourth, fifth or sixth rounds; the boxers who were reported to be 0.5m or 6.35m tall; the Danish and Australian cyclists who were reported to have broken world records the day before their tournament started; the equestrian cross-country event, where the results system was unable to print out, so they reverted to pen and paper, or the Trinidad & Tobagan table-tennis player who was drawn in two matches in the same round twice in succession. Another erstwhile Olympic sponsor, United Parcel Service, that thought it might be an idea to test security by sending a fake bomb to the games, complete with a load of electronics inside. It got past UPS’ own people, but was intercepted by an Olympic guard, but not after a widespread evacuation. The games in Barcelona in 1992 were the last to use mainframes, IBM this time plumping for a sort of intranet with more than 7,000 personal computers, 800 midrange machines and 250 local area networks connected by two wide area networks., serving around 15,000 journalists. IBM’s results system is called Info 96, leading one unkind spectator reported in the South Korean Chosun Ilbo newspaper to dub it Impo 96, for impotence. Impotent might be a little unfair, but Big Blue certainly did not perform up to its partners’ expectations. Whether this means it’ll be dumped, or will walk out of its own accord remains to be seen. Still, it’s beat the now-customary drug scandal into second place, which must please the IOC. Maybe they’ll get IBM as a comic diversion.