The women's high-jump? Run that past me again...

Like thousands of other journalists who were covering the Games, Guy Hodgson found it easy to get lost in the IBM maze

Guy Hodgson
Sunday 04 August 1996 23:02
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The television advertisement promoting IBM's computerised information system at the Atlanta Olympics focuses on two fencers. "Favouring your left knee, like you always do," one fencer says to the other. The gist is, he knows the ins and outs of his opponent, thanks to the computer.

If that were so, the fencer has more patience and guile than even his prowess with the foil would lead you to believe. Working with the computer at the Games has been a journey into a maze that you enter at your peril. Insufficient memory was the appropriate phrase; yours, that is, the hard disk's was probably fine.

The problem was that the obvious route to finding the biographical information on an Olympic competitor was not always the one that worked. For example, if you tried to call up the gold medal winner in the super heavyweight weight-lifting, Andrei Chemerkin, the screen message would give you the equivalent of a blank look. Only after you had been through the results would you realise that Chemerkin is classified under Andrey.

Trying to remember the path you took through the IBM maze the last time was the difficult bit, but at least the biographies were there. However, this was not the case at the start of the Games, when even a great Olympian like Steven Redgrave, the British rower who had been a gold medallist in three previous Games, had no information logged in the system. The same applied to Linford Christie.

That, of course, was the fault of the inputting system, but the e-mail facility frequently did not work and the overall speed left a lot to be desired. Taking television's cue, I looked up a British fencer, James Williams, and, surprise surprise, there was a biography. Except it took 50 seconds for the computer to find it.

For a reporter racing to make a deadline, that is a ridiculous amount of time to spend looking at a screen, even if there were gems of information lying there. The computer told me that Williams was being sponsored by Bruce Dickinson, formerly of the rock group Iron Maiden. Or was he?

In the rush to get the information on to the system in time for the Games, mistakes had been made and you could not always believe what you were seeing. Calling for the biography of Amarjit Singh, Britain's very masculine, 19-stone, freestyle wrestler, the resulting information provided by the computer made the mind boggle. Listed on the screen were the figures 1.94 metres recorded in 1988. And what was Singh's event? The women's high- jump.

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