And you thought Britain had a bad Games

IBM spent $80m on an information system for Atlanta, then saw its golden opportunity go up in flames.
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The United States team performance in the Olympic Games was as brilliant as Britain's was appalling. The US stars who were supposed to win, won. Many who were not supposed to do well exceeded expectations gloriously.

But one US world champion had an abysmal Games. A world champion bigger than Michael Johnson, Carl Lewis and the US gymnastics team combined. Bigger, in economic terms, than many of the 197 nations that took part in the Atlanta Olympics.

We're talking, of course, of the mighty International Business Machines Corporation, better known as IBM. For the further glory of the brand name, the corporation paid $40m for the privilege of being an official Olympic sponsor and spent another $80m to provide the Games with Info 96, what they promised would be a state-of-the-art information system. IBM, by taking on the job of organising the computer network, had more to lose than to win. If everything went well, no one would have noticed. But, like plumbing, if the system failed there would be hell to pay.

"Half the world's population will be watching," the chairman of IBM, Louis Gerstner, told a meeting of shareholders in Atlanta back in April. "We both have a lot on the line. It's a chance for your city and our company to show their very best on a world stage. I don't need to tell you there's an element of risk in stepping on to that stage."

Mr Gerstner's words proved hideously prophetic, both for Atlanta after the bomb nightmare came true, and for IBM, whose failures in the first week of the Games - sometimes laughable, more often maddening - provoked a storm of negative publicity in newspapers the world over.

Readers from Moscow to Buenos Aires to Shanghai shared laughs at the news that the system had described an athlete who was 21 as 97 years old; had reported that a French fencer had beaten the 400 metres world record; that one boxer was 2ft tall, another 21ft tall. But these comic strokes were not what prompted representatives of the 12 international news agencies that paid $10,000 each for the privilege of receiving the results service to storm into the IBM offices on the first day of competition, furiously demanding value for money. Nor were the competitors themselves amused. Some who relied on the system to provide starting times for their events were shocked to discover they had been misinformed, missed their event and been disqualified.

The theory had been that Info 96 would instantly relay results to the wire services and to the thousands of journalists gathered in Atlanta's lavishly mounted Olympic sports centres. But the results all too often arrived painfully slowly, if they arrived at all. The traffic on the IBM grid piled up. Deadlines were missed; newspapers were published without complete results lists. And the awful thing was that even the results that did arrive on time could no longer be relied upon to be accurate. All it took was for a few mistakes like the one about the French fencer who ran faster than Michael Johnson to throw everything into doubt.

If the journalists were under pressure, the fans and competitors miffed, the IBM staff co-ordinating Info 96 were on the edge of despair. They felt as if the entire reputation of IBM was on the line - not to mention their jobs. Things were not made easier by the pressure cooker environment in which they were obliged to do their work.

IBM's Technical Operations Center (TOC) in Atlanta was a windowless, fluorescent-lit room slightly larger than a tennis court. The location of the nerve centre was kept a secret for fear of terrorist attack. Hundreds of lap-tops lined the room, some of them manned by volunteers on whom IBM has placed much of the blame for some of the more absurd mistakes. After the disaster of the first-day scores, IBM flew in reinforcements to Atlanta, one effect of which was - for lack of hotel room and because of the pressure of the work - to convert the TOC into a dormitory where IBM's finest techno-brains were forced to sleep on bunk beds.

An attempt was made to reconfigure the software but was quickly ditched for lack of time. Instead, they dedicated themselves to a patch-and-mend exercise in crisis management.

As the boffins toiled, IBM head office was in a panic. The millions spent in advertising the company's products around the world were going out of the window. Senior executives from big client companies like Sony invited to the Games by IBM were beginning to ask embarassing questions. What would the effect on worldwide sales be? Would IBM stocks plummet?

So the company sent an emergemcy PR team to Atlanta. Fred McNeese, the man heading the PR team, had a thankless task. The beleaguered Mr McNeese found himself offering enraged reporters such lamely unconvincing gems as, "with a massive operation the size of the Olympics things wil crop up".

Meanwhile, at yet another crisis meeting at IBM headquarters, it was agreed to pull a series of ads scheduled to run in US newspapers. It didn't really seem worth the money to run "Buy IBM" ads alongside "IBM flops" news stories.

IBM had made a huge mistake, the company realised, in failing to run enough simulated tests of a system that they knew was about to embark on possibly the most ambitious exercise in integrated communications ever attempted by a computer system. Not that they hadn't tried. IBM sent observers to Barcelona in 1994, then appointed a high-calibre team to spend the next four years preparing for Atlanta. On the day the Games began, they had no shortage of hardware: four mainframe systems; 80 mid-range computers; 7,000 lap-tops; and countless other gizmos.

By the end of the first week, things finally improved. The bomb helped to divert press attention off IBM's problems and the accumulated brainpower the company deployed had transformed chaos into working order. The athletics events of the last week have been handled by IBM with barely a glitch. The journalists were at peace again and the world was receiving timely news. On Wall Street, IBM stocks reported good results.

But questions do remain, it has been reported, as to whether the organisers of the Sydney Olympics will ponder hiring another company to handle the computer system. On balance, it might be wise to keep IBM, whose Atlanta experience has made it sadder but also, it now appears, wiser.

You have to wonder, though, at President Clinton's announcement, made during the Games, that IBM won a contract to build the world's biggest and fastest supercomputer. Its purpose? To monitor America's nuclear arsenal.

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