Olympic IT exec on challenges for '06 games

On Feb. 10, the XX Olympic Winter Games will begin in Turin, Italy, and Enrico Frascari, managing director of technology for the Torino Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, says he will be ready. It takes years to design, implement and test the IT infrastructure needed to support the Winter Olympics, said Frascari, formerly CIO at Olivetti Lexikon. He leads a consortium of 11 companies responsible for IT at the upcoming games, which includes the timing, scoring, imaging and telecommunications. He speaks with Computerworld about the challenges of running such a big IT operation and some of the new technologies being unveiled in Torino.

How did you come into this role?

When the Olympics were awarded to Turin in 1999, I was very much interested, since it was in my country and my city. The organizing committee called me for an interview. I didn't know it would be for the Olympic Games. They only said it was for a big project.

What's happened since you joined in early 2001?

When I started, I had nothing in front of me. I was the first [IT] staffer. The first challenge was to create an IT infrastructure to support the organizing committee. In parallel, I started to design and award an infrastructure for the Games. I now have a team of 400 people. In 2001 and 2002, I spent time in Salt Lake City with the people who organized those Games.

What lessons or best practices did you learn from your peers in Salt Lake City?

I tried to learn as much as possible, and I tried to avoid mistakes. For example, we reuse the same architecture that was used for the Winter Games in Salt Lake City [in 2002]. However, they tried to integrate telecommunications and IT support, and I decided instead to keep them separate.

What does the IT infrastructure look like?

Lenovo is our primary computer equipment provider. We have 350 servers, 5,000 PCs and 800 notebook computers.

There are two major families of applications. One is a games management system, which supports many things, including transportation and accommodations for the athletes and the schedule of games. Then there's another system for scoring and distributing results. One is for timekeeping and one is for producing, publishing and distributing the results.

Are there any new technologies being deployed in Turin?

These have been tested before, but it's the first time we'll be attaching transponders to each ankle of speed skaters for production use. They'll also be used by athletes on the short [skating] track and biathlon. So for speed skating, there are sensors at the finish line to record the results, but they'll be synchronized with each skater and their transponders.

Bobsledding is the most complicated event to record, since times are measured in milliseconds and not hundredths of seconds like other events.

How does your group support the television broadcasters?

Each TV commentator has their own monitor and information from the timing systems to help them sound clever. Behind this cleverness is an application with real-time information, athlete biographies and data from the latest competitions. All of the information is translated into Italian, French and English.

What are your biggest concerns right now?

Feb. 10 is right around the corner. We did lots of testing in the past year. In 2005, we did high-level testing and stress testing. Then we did a simulation of the games in October, and we're going to conduct a second simulation this week. Now we have to move from the labs to the sites. Installing equipment at an established site like an ice hockey rink is relatively easy. To install equipment on a mountain that's still in use by the public is the biggest challenge.

How did you go about recruiting people for your team and finding people with related experience?

We did a lot of recruitment on our Web site. It wasn't hard finding people who were interested. Our staff is from 16 different countries. Some people have been involved in three, four, even five different [Olympic] Games, like Albertville [in France, in 1992] and Lillehammer [in Norway, in 1994].

As you know, there were some IT-related problems in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. What steps have you taken to avoid those?

Starting in 2000, all of the IT infrastructure equipment has been completely different, based on distributed servers. A surprise can always happen, but [there's] a much lower likelihood of [that] occurring, since we share responsibilities between multiple partners now.

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