BOSTON — While most viewers will be wowed by stunning athletic performers at the Olympics, what they may not notice is the high-powered technological act bringing the Games to their living rooms.
From Olympic sites on the Internet to venue security, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) and a band of high-powered technology sponsors have built what is being billed as the most accessible and efficient Olympic games in history.
Indeed, the 1996 Games are the most high-tech yet, changing the way people view the Olympics and the way the Games are run.
For 2 million spectators and an estimated 3 billion viewers who want up-to-the-minute results as well as background, context, and color - beyond what they get from announcers - the Internet can serve as their virtual ticket and data base.
This year marks the debut of cyberspace's take on the Olympics. The first "official" Olympic Games Home Page on the World Wide Web (http://www.atlanta.olympic.org) was created by ACOG and International Business Machines (IBM), and they expect some 250,000 virtual visitors per day once the Centennial Games start Friday. These other Web pages with Olympic information add to the offerings:
*The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - http://www.atlantagames.com.
Within the Olympic village, some 150,000 athletes, coaches, family members, officials, media employees, volunteers, contractors, and staff will have access to information at kiosks - from "Who's leading the men's platform diving after the fourth round?" to "How do I get to Peachtree Plaza?"
The amount of data disseminated by the IBM-ACOG project alone (3 terabytes, to be exact) would fill a daily newspaper every day for 10,000 years.
Highlights of the framework include:
*The results system, which provides instant confirmation of winners. This system was designed to manage results of the 271 medal events and to transfer the data - in less than one second - to judges, scoreboards, media, and attendees in Atlanta, and then to fans worldwide via the Web. So when a swimmer hits the touchpad, it's a done deal (although judges and referees have the power to delay the electronic transfer). IBM worked with Swatch Timing to integrate systems. Also, the Games' 40,000 volunteers will use pen-based notebook computers to keep track of play-by-play sports action, such as recording an assisted goal in soccer.
*The commentator information system. With 31 venues hosting competitions of 37 sports disciplines, how's a sportscaster to keep track? This system helps put scores, statistics, background, and more at announcers' fingertips. While a version of this was used in the Barcelona and Lillehammer Olympics, it's been revamped to make things even easier for sportscasters. For example, the "touch-screen" resembles a reporter's notebook and has tabbed sections. So if, for example, an "unknown" takes the gold in the 400-meter run, a reporter could quickly access that runner's biography for some background.
*The info '96 system. What does Michael Johnson like to eat for breakfast? This encyclopedia-like system is designed for athletes, coaches, volunteers, and media members attending the Games. Some 1,800 touch-screen kiosks will be set up in the Olympic village to provide event schedules, results, biographies, historical data, and even weather forecasts. E-mail and an electronic bulletin board will allow athletes and other users to communicate with one another (in English or French) as well as keep in touch with family members at the Games and back home. Info '96 also contains 100 years of Olympic history and reams of other information.
*1996 Centennial Olympic Games Web server. This will make the '96 Olympics the most accessible Games to fans ever. You can buy tickets through the home page, but if you plan to stay home, this site - along with your TV - will be the next best thing to being there. "We like to think of people in front of their TVs with a laptop on their lap," says Maria Battaglia, IBM's communications manager for the Olympics.
In Atlanta, technology also helps officials manage the Games. Again, the amount of data being distributed will be staggering: Information from scoring and timing systems will be fed into systems which will distribute it to the media. And the video feed must be transferred to the networks.
Backup plans need to be in place "just in case." Officials need instant communication. And security must run a tight ship. Even weather and traffic advisories need to be accessible.
One of the most talked-about news-gathering tools is a system called SCARLET - Synchronous Communications Accessing Real-time Live Event Television. SCARLET will enable reporters, officials, and others to keep up with events by choosing up to 60 channels of video. They will also be able to get up-to-the-second results for these events along with schedules and other information. The project is a collaboration of BellSouth (which provides the fiber-optic distribution network), Scientific-Atlanta (electronics), and Panasonic (video cameras and displays in the Olympic Village and ACOG Operations Center). "Document processing," or hard copies of results, team statistics, start lists, and heat lists will come from Xerox.
Motorists in Atlanta will have up-to-the-minute information on what's happening on roadways from computerized kiosks, electronic signs, and radio reports. Hundreds of video cameras and speed detectors will monitor roads and feed information to media and emergency officials, and directly to in-car navigation systems. If an accident occurs they will be able to act quickly, dispatching emergency crews and redirecting motorists.
In addition, security personnel will oversee two new electronic screening devices. Sensormatic's Hand-Geometry Reader will take the measurements of an individual's hand and match them with an identity. A Sensor ID card, issued to accredited participants, has a computer chip that will be read by monitors at entrances. An IBM system will also orchestrate Olympic security systems with those of state and local officials. It will monitor alarms and entries, and allow enforcement officials to troubleshoot and track patterns.
'Hello, Mom? I got second!'
For individual athletes, coaches, and officials, communicating has never been easier.
Pagers, voicemail with interpreter services (in 140 languages available 24 hours a day), E-mail, fax services, and desktop video will allow participants to communicate with other athletes, their coaches, and family back home. (AT&T, and its spin-off, Lucent Technologies, is providing telecommunications services.)
With such a large-scale, data-heavy international event like the Olympics, back-up systems and recovery plans are paramount.
"Whatever small glitches occur, we expect they will not be apparent to the public, and they'll be fixed immediately," says IBM's Battaglia. "Overall," she adds, "we should get a 10."
WHAT'S ON THE OFFICIAL OLYMPIC WEB SITE
To log on, point your Web browser to: http://www.atlanta.olympic.org
Tickets - what's available and how you can purchase
Olympic merchandise you can order
Venue information, including photographs and 3-D visualization tours through Atlanta's stadium
Web site visitor guest book
Atlanta maps, travel information, weather forecasts
Program for Atlanta Olympic Arts Festival
Broadcast coverage video clips
Fun stuff for kids featuring Izzy, the Olympic mascot
During the Games:
(In addition to the preceding):
Live start lists
Still images from the field of play at competition venues
Access to Info '96 databases for information on competition rules, athlete profiles (athlete photos), team information, news, and history.