Technology and the Olympics: 2012 vs 1948

The 2012 London Olympics are approaching fast, and computer technology is absolutely critical to their success — unlike the last time the capital hosted the Games. Here is a tour of the Olympic Park and some of the back-end systems
1 of 9 IOC

Olympic games logos

Then and now
Before 2012, we have to go back to 1948 to find the last time that the UK — then in an exhausted, near-bankrupt condition following World War II — hosted the Olympics, which had not taken place since the infamous 1936 Games in Hitler's Germany.

The 64 years separating the so-called Austerity Games and the 2012 instalment have obviously seen many changes — although the "exhausted, near-bankrupt" diagnosis for the UK remains apt. One of the biggest changes since 1948 has, of course, been the rise of computer technology — a wartime invention that was beginning to take significant Baby steps in the wider world.

ZDNet UK recently took a tour of the Olympic Park in Stratford, East London, and was also shown around the LOCOG (London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games) Integration Test Lab (ITL) and Technology Operations Centre (TOC) in Canary Wharf. The ITL/TOC tour was courtesy of worldwide Olympic partner Acer, which is providing computer equipment, services and technicians for the 2012 Games.

Here's a summary of what we saw, interspersed with images from 1948, when broadcasting and information technology were very different.

2 of 9 Charles McLellan

Olympic Park

Olympic Park 2012
The 2012 Olympic Park occupies 2.5 square kilometres of the Lower Lea Valley in East London, a run-down area flanked by the boroughs of Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newham and Waltham Forest. This is a view of the Olympic Stadium and the Orbit Tower taken from the platform of Pudding Mill Lane DLR (Docklands Light Railway) station.

The stadium's design includes a permanent 25,000-seat bowl surrounded by a demountable lightweight steel-and-concrete upper tier accommodating 55,000 spectators. After 'games-time' (one of several jargon phrases used by Olympics types), the stadium will be reconfigured for 'legacy' (there's another) usage, probably by West Ham FC.

The structure to the right of the stadium is the Orbit Tower, designed by Anish Kapoor. This steel sculpture-cum-observation tower stands 115m high and is Britain's biggest piece of public art. It will remain on site as part of the 2012 Games's permanent legacy.

3 of 9 Charles McLellan/ZDNet

Empire Stadium

Empire Stadium, Wembley, 1948
No new venues were built for 1948's Austerity Games — not even an Olympic Village for the athletes, who were housed in RAF camps (if male) and London colleges (if female). Athletes had to bring their own food, and travelled to and from the event venues on ordinary London buses.

The centrepiece of the games was the 1923 Empire Stadium, famous for its 'Twin Towers', which was demolished in 2003 to make way for the current Wembley Stadium. This image shows British athlete John Mark carrying the Olympic flame past Organising Committee members at the opening ceremony.

Photo credit: IOC

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London Olympics velodrome

Almost ready...
The Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) is the public body responsible for building the new venues for the 2012 Games, as well as upgrading existing venues, delivering supporting infrastructure (including transport) and converting the Olympic Park for 'legacy' use after 'games-time'.

Although there's plenty of construction still going on, the ODA has completed much of the necessary work, including: the Olympic Stadium, the Aquatics Centre, the Velodrome (pictured), the IBC/MPC (International Broadcast Centre/Main Press Centre), the Handball and Basketball Arenas, and the Lee Valley White Water Centre (see www.london2012.com for more details).

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1948 photo finish

Olympic technology in 1948
The BBC's on-site Broadcasting Centre in 1948 was housed in the Palace of Arts, one of three now-demolished main buildings constructed for the 1924 British Empire Exhibition (the other palaces were Industry and Engineering). The 1948 Games were the first to be shown on home television, with an official audience of just 500,000 within the British Isles.

Among the technological innovations used by the BBC for televising the Austerity Games were CPS (Cathode Potential Stabilisation) Emitron cameras, which delivered a clearer image than previous CRT-based video cameras. The 1948 Games also saw the first use of a mobile television control room, for covering events at the Empire Pool (now the Wembley Arena).

As far as the all-important timing of events was concerned, things had moved on from the days when judges supplied their own stopwatches and did duty as timekeepers. Official automatic timing was first introduced at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, courtesy of Omega and 30 pocket watch-sized counters and chronographs.

Omega used a new timekeeping system built around photoelectric cells in the 1948 Games, which also saw the first photo-finish technology, made by the London-based Race Finish Recording Company. Shown here is a photo-finish of the 100m final, in which Harrison Dillard (US) was awarded the gold medal.

6 of 9 Charles McLellan/ZDNet

2012 technology

Olympic technology in 2012
With 107 'technology-supported venues' (combining competition and non-competition locations), the 2012 Olympic Games is the world's largest sporting event. As an IT project, it's equivalent to creating a large, fast-growing, multi-site enterprise in a relatively short period of time: discussions with LOCOG began towards the end of 2008, and a mission-critical period of intense activity is scheduled for July and August 2012.

The Games could not take place without its IT infrastructure functioning reliably, and the 27 July start date is an immovable deadline. That adds up to plenty of pressure on Atos Origin (applications and technology integration), Acer (hardware) and LOCOG's other technology partners including Airwave (radio systems), BT (fixed network, mobile network and telephony), Cisco (network infrastructure), Omega (timing and scoring systems), Panasonic (audio-visual, TV and video) and Samsung (mobile communications equipment).

Acer, which has the advantage of experience in providing hardware for the smaller-scale 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, expects to provide some 11,500 desktop PCs (running Windows 7), 1,100 notebooks and 900 servers for the 2012 Games, all tended by around 350 engineers. This IT infrastructure will handle standard back-office tasks like finance, HR and CRM, as well as Games-related duties such as co-ordinating timings, results and the Commentator Information System (CIS).

Much store is set by the small-footprint, low-power nature of the standard Veriton L670G desktop (inset, above), which promotes both logistic and energy efficiency. Some trends, such as the rise in popularity of tablets, were not foreseen at the start of the project, but Acer now expects significant numbers of its tablets to be employed as well.

Michael Trainor, service project manager for the Acer Olympic Project, said: "We've probably completed around 98 percent of our requirement overall", leaving various ad hoc hardware requirements from LOCOG to service over the next four to five months. What remains, though, is testing and more testing, to ensure that nothing goes wrong at 'games-time'.

Main photo credit: Charles McLellan

7 of 9 Charles McLellan

Integration test lab

Integration Test Lab
One major part of LOCOG's IT infrastructure that will have completed its work come 'Games-time' is the Integration Test Lab (ITL). In this Canary Wharf location, some 800 PCs and 130 tower-format servers (mostly Gateway GT350F1 systems) are grouped into event-related 'cells' devoted to many thousands of hours of tests of timing, results and information systems.

Much of the current activity involves 'test events' — which can be proper championships, invitation events or desk-based simulations — where the relevant ITL cell equipment is packed up and shipped to the venue (unless it's a simulation), and then returned for post-event review. As of early December, 20 test events have been completed, from a total of about 40. Once technical rehearsals are complete, the equipment will be relocated to the event venues and the ITL will fall silent.

Acer's Trainor was keen to point out that "this is not a new technology showcase for us": the most important factor is that the hardware infrastructure is solid, reliable and has been thoroughly tested — by Atos and LOCOG, as well as Acer itself. To counter potential problems, every cell's 'games' server has a mirror, with a 'cold spare' as further insurance.

8 of 9 Charles McLellan

Commentator Information System

Commentator Information System (CIS)
For broadcasters, a key tool will be the Commentator Information System (CIS), which is a statistician's dream. Available on some 1,500 Acer touchscreen PCs, the Atos-developed CIS integrates timings and results for 36 disciplines almost instantaneously with a vast database of information relating to each event and its history. Any commentator should be able to sound well-informed with the CIS at their fingertips.

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Technology Operations Centre

LOCOG's equivalent of NASA's Mission Control is the Technology Operations Centre (TOC), which is housed in the same Canary Wharf location as the ITL. We were only allowed to press our noses against the TOC's glass wall, which accounts for the reflections in the above photo. What we didn't see — or even learn the location of — is LOCOG's primary datacentre, which houses Acer (Altos R270m2) and Gateway (GR380F1, GR585F1) rack servers, along with Hitachi (AMS2100, AMS2500) SAN storage systems.

At 'games-time', the TOC will be staffed around the clock by some 450 technicians, monitoring IT security, telecommunications, power and event results systems.

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