Olympic Games are not an IT-driven enterprise as we know it

Whenever the Olympic Games rears its head it’s the IT vendors who act like they deserve a gold medal.

Whether it’s Bell, Cisco, or longtime Olympic systems integrator Atos Origin, anyone who’s responsible for the behind-the-scenes technical work for the competition is quick to tout their association with the Games, and no wonder. Even if it’s not spelled out, there’s an easy mental association between the inspiring running, jumping or swimming performed by athletes and the network gymnastics performed by the underlying IT infrastructure. Whether the Olympics face the kind of challenges experienced by a regular enterprise is another matter.

Like most businesses, the Olympics are centered around a core competency: measuring and comparing the performance of human beings engaged in competitive physical activities. Although it’s the host city that may eat up most of the cost (and, if they’re lucky, enjoy the benefits of increased tourism), the real point of the Games is to relay information about who won, who lost, and by how much. Real-time data is seldom as real-time as it will be in Bejing this year.

You can break that down into some core functions and processes, almost all of which are supported by IT: timing and scoring, scheduling, and the broadcasting of information to the media and to various Olympics Web properties. In some ways, it’s not that different from tracking the sales of a company’s products, marketing information about those products, organizing employees and tracking the activities of customers, partners and suppliers.

The major differences are around scope and scale. Scope in the sense that the Games are an enterprise with a fairly short life span. Building (and especially configuring) the IT infrastructure typically takes years of planning and an army of experts, but the mission of the Games is fulfilled (one way or another) within less time than the average company’s sales quarter.
From a scale perspective, it might be worth looking at plans for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, where lead partner Bell Canada is already at work on setting up a network with 15,000 IP-based ports connecting more than 10,000 IP phones, and 5,000 two-way radios. Expectations are for 5,200 laptops, 560 servers and 1,000 printers. The budget? About $343 million, which is probably a tad more than the average Canadian enterprise.
What the Olympic Games don’t do is evolve. If they are to be considered enterprises, they are closed down and rebuilt from scratch each time, often with different partners and players. In this they are more like point projects of the Olympic Committee than a living, breathing corporation faced with peaks and valleys of business demand. When the Games are underway, that’s the peak.
Best to think of the Olympics, either in Bejing or anywhere else, as the industry’s ultimate benchmark test. They may provide useful case studies of technology in action but in ones that push far greater extremes than the reality faced by everyday firms. For them, running IT well enough to get the job done day in, day out is more of a marathon than a sprint. That’s where the Olympian effort really comes in.

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