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Sydney 2000: Please let it go smoothly

After widely-publicised technical glitches at Atlanta's 1996 Olympic Games, IBM is praying its final Olympic games is a bug-free event

International Business Machines' (IBM) 40-year term as technology supplier to the Olympics is coming to an end in December, and the company is out to ensure it leaves the sporting event with a bang rather than a whimper. Four years ago, at the Atlanta Olympics, IBM won unwelcome notoriety as the company that had set up a complex, cutting edge and, as it turned out, completely worthless system for reporting results to the press. Many journalists, citing missing or garbled information, ended up ditching IBM's estimated $80m (about £50m) of computer infrastructure in favour of a far less whiz-bang technology -- the fax machine. As in 1996, the Big Blue will be providing systems for the event that reach far beyond what will be directly used by Internet visitors or the news media. But this year the company says it will stay away from the bleeding edge, will carry out more testing and will work with news media and sports federations to make sure everything runs smoothly. "During the Games, there will be backup and recovery systems," says an IBM spokesman, adding that the company is carrying out "wide-scale testing of all our systems right until the commencement of the Games." There will be 38 tests before the Games begin -- a cautious move, considering an IBM spokesman told reporters there were no major technology rehearsals for Atlanta. The problem at the last Olympics was particular bad luck for IBM since it was only the press-reporting system which malfunctioned -- the infrastructure running the Games themselves worked perfectly. This meant that the problems were widely reported, defeating the main purpose for which IBM and other tech companies continue to flock to the Games -- public relations. Taking part in major technological undertakings such as the Olympics has always been a dangerous game, according to Peter Lemon, research manager with IDC. "Everyone wants to build these big reference Web sites, like the Olympics or these big auction sites," he says. "When they go down, it's massive bad publicity, but you have to be in the game." For IBM, the game is changing, industry observers said. The company is trying to radically alter its image, establishing itself at the front lines of the Internet revolution. "The real return on investment will be through increased customer awareness of IBM's capability as an e-business solutions provider," the IBM spokesman said. IBM will also be wining and dining big business partners during the Games, showing them the range of information systems IBM has created, and hopefully creating opportunities to talk about how IBM can meet their corporations' e-business needs. The centrepiece of the operation is olympics.com, the Games' official Web site, which is plastered with IBM advertising proclaiming "Sydney 2000 Olympic Games is an IBM e-business." INFO, IBM's information-retrieval system for the Games, will serve about 15,000 members of the media, IBM says. Rather than going for beta-test technology this year, IBM is stressing that the technology is tried and tested: it touts the fact that INFO runs on servers that are already used by many prominent Web businesses, and reminds potential customers of the success of INFO '98, the system behind the Nagano Winter Olympics. This year's system is much larger than Nagano's, and analysts have estimate IBM may have spent as much as $200m (about £124m) on it, twice as much as the Winter Games. (IBM does not release the figures for its spending on the Olympics.) The growing expense is part of the reason why IBM decided two years ago to cease its involvement with the Games. Another reason was that the International Olympic Committee wanted to market its Internet operations separately from the rest of the technology, while IBM felt the Internet was increasingly central to its interests with the Games. "As we evaluated the contribution of value-in-kind technology and services required to sustain our worldwide partnership with the Olympic Movement over the next several years, we concluded that the investment simply could not be justified by the available marketing return," the IBM spokesman says. In the mean time, IBM is being careful to use the Olympic Web site as well as online and television advertising to make sure people notice its online achievements, and hopefully forget about its glitchy past. "They have a lot of good technical people working on it," said analyst Lemon. "I feel comfortable with what they're doing this year. They're trying to get around the problem that you only think of the lighting company when the lights go off." What do you think? Tell the Mailroom. And read what others have said. Take me to Sydney 2000
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