An Olympian effort to show speed, grace


SALT LAKE CITY - On your mark. Get set.


That's how millions of people worldwide are reaching out to the 2002 Winter Olympics. For tickets. For jobs. For lodging. For souvenirs.

Armchair athletes have never had it so good.

The Web site for the Games is getting 400,000 unique visitors each month, and they in turn generate several million page views. With just three months remaining before the Olympic caldron is ignited, that level of interest is only expected to increase.

In fact, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee expects its Web site ( to receive 20 billion hits (yes, that's billion) from Feb. 8 to 24. That's 23 times the level reached by the Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, just four years ago.

The site already has 240 informational video files archived so that Olympic watchers can brush up on their figure skating or learn about the newest Winter Game's sport, skeleton, a form of belly-down sledding.

Once the action starts, the Olympic Web site will have still photos from the events. NBC has broadcast rights to the games, and although it hasn't decided yet, the network is likely to limit video clips to its own Web site.

Organizers have already made this the most wired Olympics in history. They lined up 99 percent of their 22,000 volunteers, sold 85 percent of their tickets and accepted the bulk of the nominations for the 11,500 people who will relay the Olympic flame from Atlanta to Salt Lake City online.

"The Internet's job, and the job of our site, is to reduce friction in people's lives," said Perkins Miller, site general manager. "With the site we're telling people, 'Don't fill out a form and wait for the mail or spend 45 minutes on the phone. Go online and click some boxes.'"

Keeping tabs on the action and medals standings is expected to be easier, too. Beginning later this month, fans will be able to register online to receive "Olympic News Alerts" about specific events. Users of the service will see a small pop-up window on their computer screens when news or results are posted, Miller said.

That information will be almost instantaneous - if a $300 million computer and information network operates as planned. The system, which also will feed information to reporters and TV commentators, is the largest single expenditure in the $1.3 billion Winter Games budget.

Built from scratch by a cluster of hardware and software providers and stitched together by a little-known New York company, the system is untested in the heat of competition.

The integrator, SchlumbergerSema, replaced Olympic veteran IBM, which ended its nearly four-decade sponsorship after the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, citing the crushing cost of being a player.

The loss of Big Blue raised eyebrows in the sports community. Sure, SchlumbergerSema was fine for World Cup soccer events, the reasoning went, but what would happen when the company's supervision expanded to simultaneous events in different sports at 10 different sites?

The first dry run last week was sobering. Computer applications crashed, connections to sites were lost and fixes came slowly to a network linked by 32,000 miles of fiber-optic cable.

On the positive side, said Robert Cottam, SchlumbergerSema's point man for the project, his team knows where the problems are and has more than enough time to work out the bugs.

"We went out and got the best of breed of suppliers - Gateway, Seiko, Xerox, Kodak - but in a large integrated system what goes in sometimes gets lost before you can get it out," he explained.

Of course, technology glitches happen to veterans, too. During the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, the IBM system could not produce accurate and timely results, leaving athletes and reporters guessing and fuming.

Cottam said he expects repairs to be made quickly. He ordered a second rehearsal next month.

In some ways, it's a surprise that the Winter Games are wired at all.

In addition to the loss of IBM for information systems, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee lost its original Web content provider in April, when Quokka Sports Inc. went belly up. A month later, Logictier Inc., which provided the bandwidth, servers and routers, dropped out for financial reasons.

"There was a struggle for a while," Miller admitted. "It was a lot of sleepless nights and long weekends and probably three months of internal chaos."

Luckily, hundreds of content and service providers called to offer support, and in June a new partnership was announced with NBC, Microsoft and MSNBC.

Miller said rebuilding the Web site so close to the Games "was like trying to build a train that was already moving down the tracks. It's important to remember the basics: Who your audience is and what they need."

That means training Web site producers to watch the results objectively.

"In the U.S., we tend to be myopic about sports. Football is almost always on Sunday afternoon. Big horse races are on Saturday. In Sydney, we learned about traffic from different nations and which sports cause spikes," Miller said.

The biathlon appeals to northern Europe, ski jumping is popular in Japan and figure skating attracts a big audience here.

"We can't prioritize and say 'We're going to concentrate on this sport right now.' We have to allow Sweden, Japan and Canada to experience their favorite sport when they want to see it," he said.

To make that happen, Cottam and his team in a downtown command center will have to be on their game. Almost 100 people working three shifts around the clock are dedicated to keeping the information system healthy.

"Sometimes the difference from first place to 10th is less than a second. You don't want to leave athletes standing around or have commentators with blank screens. We've tried to think of everything," Cottam said.

Even backup systems have backups. Seiko will have three timing systems at each event. If telephone lines go dead, managers will send results by cell phone, radio or short-range walkie-talkie. At the command center, an on-site generator can keep things humming for a week if a crippling snowstorm hits. A duplicate of this "mission control" center sits ready at an undisclosed location.

They're even practicing in case heavy snows force postponements that require holding four or five events simultaneously instead of two.

"If we're invisible, I've done my job," said Cottam, who will leave after the caldron is extinguished for Turin, Italy, the site of the 2006 Winter Games. "But IT [information technology] is such an integral part of athletics now, we really couldn't go back to stopwatches."

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