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THE CUTTING EDGE

Gold Medal Technologies

The Games present an extraordinary opportunity for companies to strut their newfangled stuff.

July 15, 1996|JENNIFER OLDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the Centennial Olympiad opens this Friday in Atlanta, athletes won't be the only ones testing their skills.

A veritable Who's Who of high-tech companies is using the Games to showcase an array of new technologies, from "biometric" security devices and electronic payment systems to next-generation cellular phones and an outsize World Wide Web site.

It ought to be a marketer's dream: The Games' 10 major technology-company sponsors ponied up either $20 million or $40 million for the opportunity to convince a vast audience that the products and skills needed to make the Olympics run smoothly are the same ones needed to provide good phone service, reliable PCs or secure transactions on the Internet.

"We hope to sell more systems in the future because people are impressed with the challenges we have overcome in planning for the Games," says Elizabeth Primrose-Smith, director of worldwide Olympic and sports operations at IBM.

But there are some risks involved too. Any significant technological problems are likely to be more visible than the successes, which could leave sponsors with egg on their face. And as anyone who has seen a lot of new-technology demonstrations knows, failures are pretty common.

"These companies will be under a microscope for the whole period of time," says Scott Mall, director of communications for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.

On the front line is IBM, the Games' exclusive provider of computer hardware, software and Internet access and the company charged with integrating the systems provided by the nine other tech sponsors.

Big Blue touts the system as "the largest integrated information technology system ever demonstrated to a mass audience" and is confident enough in its sophistication that it will be shipped to Nagano, Japan, for the 1998 Winter Games and then to Sydney, Australia, for the 2000 Summer Games.

The system will provide virtually instantaneous access not only to event schedules and background information on sports and participants, but also to event results as they occur. The results system allows volunteers not only to enter competitors' scores in each of the Games' 37 sports into a computer, but also to keep track of which basketball player made an assist or which soccer player scored a goal.

Everything from photo cells built into the vertical bars of the pole vault and the runway of the triple jump to sensors embedded in the swimming pool starting blocks will enable athletes and coaches to better monitor performance. Also built into the technology backbone are the more than 100 applications written to help the event run smoothly--including an unusual computerized musical database.

Athletes will have access to their own scores and those of their teammates via 1,800 touch-screen kiosks and workstations scattered around the venues.

And all of this will be connected to the largest World Wide Web site ever built. The site, at http://www.atlanta.olympic.org, has already exceeded traffic expectations but is prepared to handle up to 10 million hits a day during the 17-day competition, said John Patrick, vice president of Internet technology for IBM.

By setting their browsers to http://www.fanmail.olympic.ibm.com, fans can send electronic postcards to their favorite athletes or an entire national team. The link allows cyber fans to draft a 25-word message. Athletes will be able to respond by visiting IBM's "Surf Shack" in the Olympic Village, where 30 computers will be available for athletes to participate in online services and even to create their own home page.

Some sponsors have already begun seeing a return on their Olympic-size Atlanta investments.

IBM plans to employ the same technology it used to build the Olympics ticket server--which hosted the largest one-day sale on the Internet when it sold $1.1 million in Olympics tickets--to help L.L. Bean bring its catalog online before Christmas.

Sensormatic Electronics, the Olympics' first electronic security sponsor, has generated $27 million in new business that it can trace back to leads coming from the Games, said Louis Chiera, Sensormatic's director of Olympic marketing.

The company developed the "biometric" hand-contour reader, which, together with an advanced photo ID system developed by Eastman Kodak Co., is designed to ensure that only 250,000 accredited people have access to high-security areas. It's just one of a panoply of computer and video technologies--as well as more traditional law enforcement deployments--intended to make these Olympics the most secure ever.

"In previous Games, the word 'security' meant if you had the right trading pin, you could get into any venue," Chiera said. "Now that's changed. The bar has been raised."

The big, well-known technology sponsors are not the only ones who hope to capitalize on the Olympic marketing frenzy. Elias Arts, a New York-based music production company, was hired by NBC to develop a music database that TV producers can use during telecasts.

The database for the first time allows producers to access music in real time during a telecast instead of manually selecting a CD, said Scott Elias, company chairman.

"We wanted to develop a sound identity for the Olympics," Elias said.

The 2,000-clip music database is divided into four themes, including victory, defeat, drama and Olympic spirit, and each sport has its own body of music corresponding to each of these themes. NBC will own the rights to the database--but Elias hopes the exposure will help him generate business elsewhere.

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