Winter Olympics: Olympic computer breaks all records: Lillehammer's ski jumps, security and seat bookings are all controlled by one system. Steve Homer reports

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The Independent Online
It is just possible. Eddie the Eagle might have won the ski jump at the Lillehammer Winter Olympics. It's stretching the point a bit, but in the original design of the jump site for this week's games the judges' tower was in the wrong place. When the design was simulated on a computer someone decided to check the view from the judges' box. The judges would not be able to see the competitors land] The design was changed before construction started and a costly mistake was avoided. But who knows? They might have thought Eddie was perfect.

The Olympics and computing are not two things that you normally put together. One is about sweat, adrenalin, struggle and physical and mental exertion, the other is about gas bills and sorting out your work in the office. But the Lillehammer games also represent an Olympic computer challenge.

The XVII Winter Olympics are like an inverted pyramid. There are 2,000 athletes, watched by 8,000 broadcasters and journalists looked after by 50,000 accredited personnel. Add to that the 100,000 spectators expected daily and a worldwide television audience of three billion.

To build facilities for the events and visitors and to set up systems to support the media and the general organisation involves a massive computing task. The system running in Norway is almost certainly the biggest computer network ever established to run for a brief period, with more than 3,000 terminals.

A computer-aided design system called DAK 94 proved invaluable in designing and planning for the Games. It was this system that discovered the problem with the ski jump - and a user also discovered that judges at the freestyle skiing site could be blinded by the sun at certain times of day.

Where a security fence is needed the security team just draws it on to the design and an order is sent for the right materials. All of the 20,000 signs to be displayed were entered into the system. Not only could the correct pictograph be chosen and text added, the signs were labelled so that construction workers knew exactly where they should be placed. The computer also alerted the user if the sign would conceal a power socket or cause other problems.

Interior designers used it to select and position dollars 10.5m worth of furniture using 30 standard designs. It was used to see which seats would have restricted views when television cameras were installed (different sports use different camera locations). It was even used to check the logistics for the Olympic ceremonies.

DAK 94 will also be responsible for what should be some of the fastest bobsled runs ever. The Lillehammer course was engineered to give top performers speeds up to 125 kilometres per hour. The US team is also using its own computers to boost speed. Not only was the sled designed using a computer, but during trials information from on-board sensors measuring G-force, runner temperature, driver reaction and other factors was loaded into a portable computer and modifications made. The well-fancied British team, struggling along on a shoestring, was not pleased when they heard about this.

But another British medal hope, the speed skater Wilf O'Reilly, is using a laptop to monitor his performance. He is planning to send data to his coach via telephone modem to check his performances.

The Lillehammer Olympic Organising Committee is using the huge computer system to ensure that every person competing or working at Lillehammer is registered, accredited, seated, fed, housed, transported and informed better than at any previous Olympics.

The system exchanges data with travel agencies and reservation offices and the accreditation system communicates with police systems for security checks. Individuals receive bar-coded identification allowing access to different areas.

But the main challenge has not been to get it all working. 'It's developing a system for 50,000 first- time users, most of whom have no computing experience, and no time to learn,' says Reidar Rossum, IBM's Olympic project director.

Whether designing a ski slope or allocating seats, the system must be an extension of users' work and take no longer than an hour to learn, he says. 'So although the same big system is running hotel booking and seat allocation, for example, each user only sees the little piece they need to do their job efficiently.

'Visitors, commentators and competitors need to be able to use the information systems immediately - they must understand at first sight.'

The system the organisers are most proud of is the Commentator Information Service (CIS), which aims to ensure that all the media experts know exactly what they are talking about.

Erik Andersen, of the computer company Avenir, who is operations manager of the results system, has been working on CIS for more than three years. In the early stages he was naive enough to ask when commentators would be coming in for training. The answer from the organisers was a laugh: 'Five minutes before the event starts.' So everything has to be simple and self- explanatory.

The 800 CIS work stations each have a TV monitor, a headset, a sound unit and a computer with a touch-sensitive screen. To operate the system (which works in English, Norwegian and French), all the commentator has to do is point at the screen. Icons for different sports are displayed. Events in progress are highlighted.

The commentator can watch an event on the television with the computer showing the leaders, intermediate times, finishing times and marks. All these are updated in real time. Commentators can specify their own countries and details of athletes are highlighted, making it easier to follow their progress.

By touching an athlete's name, background information is called up with personal details, and records of previous performance.

Inevitably, with so many computers, unauthorised entry into the system is a constant worry. Hackers have put notices on computer bulletin boards in Norway saying they have broken into the system. 'Some have said that they will get their names up on the score boards,' says Mr Andersen, 'but we are confident that the systems are secure.' To be sure no viruses are introduced on site, the thousands of terminals have had their disk drives disabled.

Another potential entry point would be the electronic mail system which allows accredited people on site to communicate with each other and with the outside world. But this system is based on one mainframe computer in Oslo while the results system is based on another. A third is kept on standby in case one of the others fails.

Should hackers manage to disable the e-mail system there would certainly be cries of anguish. 'The electronic mail system is a godsend,' said the British Olympic spokesperson Caroline Searle. 'With everyone rushing around to different meetings it is usually very difficult to get hold of each other. We use it to communicate with the press and team members, as do coaches.'

(Photograph omitted)

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