Miquel de Moragas Spà (España)
Olympic and Sport Studies Center
Autonomous University of Barcelona
Paris, June 1997.
Daniel Bell1 was one of the first to analyze the changes that would need to take place to replace the traditional mechanisms of industrial society - power, energy, raw materials - with new forms of exchange based on information.
These initial forecasts interpreted for a wider audience by other authors like Toffler and Servan-Schreiber, or more recently by Negroponte2, are confirmed day by day as a result of the coming together of two technologies: information technology and telecommunications.
In the 90s, these processes have become the hub around which modem development policies of the world's great powers3 revolve. They are forced to adapt their living and working methods to the new conditions imposed by information technology4.
Such transformation defines the deep structural changes in the Organization of society and, of course, in the ways information is broadcast and stored, creating new logic and new documentation procedures. In this "new society", the mass media still play a leading role, even though the role has begun to be shared by various other systems of information exchange, especially via Web sites on the Internet.
The effects of such new logic on Olympic studies and documentation will therefore be the main focus of this presentation.
Firstly because such transformation is applied to the various subsections and stages of the Games: planning, Organization, implementation, broadcasting and documentation.
Secondly because the three main actors interested in such experimentation (industry, institutions and business) come together in them in order to put their powers to the test to become the leaders in innovation in their sectors.
The Olympic Games test to the limit, and within a very short space of time, the main synergies of new forms of Organization and communication inherent to the information society.
However, this opportunity for experimentation can be best seen in the communications sector (telecommunications, mass media, information technology) which, during the Olympic Games, reaches record levels of concentration and is subject to the greatest test of effectiveness: approval by the expectant, critical world press.
New information technology and the gradual digitalization of information production allows the Games' organization's information network (computerization) to be integrated into documentation processes. The production, processing, broadcast and archiving processes tend to become one, thus losing the autonomy they once had and benefiting from several synergies.
So, documentation is no longer a process superimposed on information management by the organizing committees for the Olympic Games (OCOGs). It has become an on-line by-product of every part of the information's organizational management. Olympic documentation - at least the portion that derives from the organization of the Games - can and must be transformed into a major source of on-line information.
The Internet Web sites of the organizing committees for the Olympic Games (Atlanta'96, Nagano'98 and Sydney'2000), of the National Olympic Committees and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are the first examples of a new synergy between Olympic documentation and information.
The main difference between that pioneering experiment - which carried on right up to Seoul'88 - and today's era lies in the single process of results calculation and storage and information computerization or, in other words, dissemination. In this sense, it can indeed be said that the telecommunications and information technology era as one did not reach us until the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, where a special program (BIT'92)5 planned the electronic, computer and telecommunications resources. It can also be said that in some cases (e.g. results information) the performance of the technology used then has not been bettered by subsequent Games.
The Internet era, however, did not begin until the preparation and organization of the Atlanta'96 Olympics. Let's recall, for one moment, the fact that the International Olympic Committee's Web site came into operation in 1995 and that it was in Atlanta where these new means of communication were used generally for the first time ever.
The first experience demonstrated the capabilities - and the drawbacks - of this new technology.
The organizers of Atlanta'96 had an impressive set of computer resources available to them which were provided by IBM: 7000 IBM PCs, 250 LANs, 80 AS/400s, 30 RS/6000s and 4 System/390s. The system, which included important resources for media professionals ("Info'96" and "Commentators Information System") coped with almost 31 million data inquiries and 4.9 million E-mail contacts'6.
And the figures are even higher when taking a look at Internet uses throughout the Centennial Games. According to IBM sources in Atlanta'96, 100,000 E-mails were generated for the Olympic family and the athletes. 130,000 tickets were sold through Atlanta's official Web site (www.atlanta.olympic.org). According to the same source, the Web site had 11 million hits per day, a total of 190 million hits throughout the 16 days of the Games.
Some people coined the phrase "IBMers" as opposed to "TV-viewers" to identify the dimension and importance of these new forms of communicative consumption of the Olympic Games.
Leaving such "quantitative" optimism to one side, the Atlanta Olympics also exposed all the contradictions of the present state of new information technology implementation. And not just because of the obvious world-wide imbalances, but also because of the deficiencies found in sectors where, apparently, such technology should be more secure: information provision.
In Atlanta, different operators acted as if information via the Internet was a fully implemented communicative practice. However, the experience proved that the new process was at a very early stage.
There were numerous contradictions, starting with the different problems encountered and system failures, like slow reception of information "waiting for reply", constant transmission mt-offs ("transmission interrupted"), the density of graphics on most home pages, line saturation, etc.
Some other major contradictions resulted from the various malfunctions in what could be termed the social use of the new technology. Undeniably, one of the biggest ones was the Organization of the Games 'main actors' lack of knowledge about the technology (directors, policy managers, athletes and even journalists). Several other contradictions stemmed from errors ("human") in manual information coding or not foreseeing that operations needed to be tested before opening them up to public use.
Multiple delays and on-line information distribution errors of the sports results stemmed from all the above. These errors had major repercussions on international media, because they were publicly recognized and reinterpreted ("What really Happened?) by IBM7 itself, the company in charge of the computer-related aspects of Atlanta'96.
These errors demonstrated the fragile nature of the new information means at a key point of any information process: quality control in information production.
Those in charge of new technologies tend to overstate promises of security, immediacy and multiplication of information, partly because of marketing and partly because of an overestimated degree of trust in new system's automation capabilities, without bearing in mind that information is "production" and not simply "repetition".
Año 3, Nº 10. Buenos Aires. Mayo 1998