The computer Games

This summer's Atlanta Olympics seem certain to set a world record when it comes to information technology. By Tim Richardson
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There's been a multiple killing in downtown Atlanta and the gunman is holding a pregnant woman hostage in a drugstore; a bomb has been planted somewhere in the Olympic stadium and a violent mob is blocking the route of the presidential limousine.

It's a nightmare scenario that the Atlanta Police Department hopes will remain as fictitious as one of America's gritty TV cop shows. But as Atlanta gets ready to host the Olympic Games next month, the America's most violent city has turned to information technology to help combat crime.

The system centres on a network of computers running an incident tracking application that links 50 local, state and federal police bureaux throughout Georgia. Details of incidents are distributed as soon as they are reported, allowing police to refer to a schedule to see exactly what is happening on the ground.

A computerised monitoring system also lets security agencies stay in touch during an incident, replacing the need to fill out duplicate forms. The result is that if the presidential limo is blocked, police have the chance to bypass the trouble ahead. And if the bomb scare is a hoax, the incident can be defused and attention focused instead on the drugstore heist.

So, don't cancel your plane ticket to Atlanta just yet. In any event, organisers are quick to point out that Atlanta's reputation shouldn't deter people from visiting the city this summer. They say that serious crime tends to nosedive during the Games because of its high profile and the increased levels of security.

For those who prefer the safety of their own living room, with the only risk being eye strain from watching too much TV, computer technology will bring new levels of sophistication to the indoor grandstand. Coverage will include faster results, snazzier graphics and even more sports trivia from commentators.

As one of the first groups to receive the information in Atlanta, broadcasters will be relaying the latest sporting action to an estimated audience of more than three billion people. Using touch-sensitive screens, commentators will flick from one sport to another as though thumbing through a folder containing the latest information from nine different sports. This will include split times, personal bests and even predictions on the likelihood of a new Olympic or world record.

Similar information will be fed simultaneously to video graphics generators where tables of race results and medal winners will be created and flashed up on TV screens across the globe.

IBM, the technology sponsor of the Atlanta Games, maintains that once the results have been collected, they will be available to commentators in as little as a fifth of a second even though information is coming in from four states.

The source of this improved coverage stems from the results service, the most visible of all the technology on show in Atlanta. Made up of a network of 37 separate computer systems - one for each event - the results will be processed at each location before being shipped to central computers and on to commentators, media and the Internet.

Results from trackside or poolside will be fed automatically into the network by electronic Swatch timers while other information will be typed in using personal computers or handwritten using pen-based computers. The whole system is a mind-boggling network of 7,000 PCs, 80 mid-range computers, three mainframes and 1,000 printers - all connected by more than 250 local area and two wide area networks.

And if British commentators such as David Coleman and Brendan Foster are in search of something to say, they can scroll through the biographies of all 11,000 athletes, compare present results with past Olympiads or even tease viewers with the local weather forecast. More than three terabytes of Olympic information will be at their fingertips - the equivalent of 30,000 editions of the Independent.

Sports fans can hitch a ride on the Internet and join the thousands of people visiting the official Olympic World Wide Web page. With a direct link to the results service, it will provide the latest information from the 271 medal events as well as athlete interviews, news, photographs and even video clips. IBM is bracing itself for between five and 10 million "hits" a day, with additional capacity in reserve should demand exceed expectations.

But with all this computer wizardry making it almost impossible for two- thirds of the world's population to avoid the Olympics, what do sponsors such as IBM get out of it, apart from the privilege of pinning the Olympic rings to their products?

Sure, the Olympics provides the world's biggest showcase to demonstrate the latest technology, but it also poses one of the greatest risks. If all goes well, if the technology works as planned and results pop on to TV screens with regimental regularity, there's a danger that people will say, "Well, isn't that what they promised? Isn't that what computers are supposed to do?"

But if the glitches start to tangle the network and the gremlins decide to run amok; if the notoriously unpredictable weather around Georgia should wreak havoc, then it is possible the army of sofa sports fans will become restless. Has someone got an incident tracking system for that?

The official 1996 Olympic Games site is at http://www.atlanta.olympic.org

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