Olympics: so far, so good, so what?

My editor's unhappy with me because I just filed this column rather late. I'm guilty as charged -- I had a chance to watch Roger Federer (upset in straight sets by American James Blake -- U-S-A! U-S-A!), Venus Williams (upset in straight sets by Chinese favorite Li Na -- Zhongguo Jia You! ["Go China" in Mandarin Chinese]), and Rafael Nadal, who is so the best tennis player in the world it's not even funny. All three played on the same night, on the same ticket and it was close enough to where I live that I took Beijing's new subway Line 10 home when it was over. So, sorry I'm late.

I didn't mean to lose focus. The Olympics is, after all, about technology, right? IT and all that stuff? Hardware, software? At least I think that's what it's all about. The Beijing Organizing Committee for the XXIX Olympics (BOCOG) said that this was a "High-tech Olympics," so I guess it must be. They also said it was going to be a "Green Olympics," although frankly Beijing always looks kind of gray.

OK, so, right -- technology. The other day I went to beach volleyball. All of the Olympic venues have security checks prior to entering the grounds, staffed by very earnest young volunteers. It's like the airport security in the United States, only more professional. You have to produce your ticket, which has an RFID (radio frequency identification) tag in it, and press it against a reader, which authenticates it. You then pass through a standard metal detector and screening, after which your ticket's bar code is scanned and then torn off. Look, technology at the Olympics! I guess that later on you could take the ticket apart and check out the RFID tag, but why would you want to ruin it? The tickets are nice, I'm going to keep them in a scrapbook as souvenirs.

Earlier Thursday when we were trying to get to the tennis venue, it was pouring rain. I pulled out the TD-SCDMA (Time Division Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access) 3G (third-generation) phone that the nice people at Samsung lent me to try out. I accessed the WOW (Wireless Olympic World) system's mInfo, which is supposed to have all kinds of information about the games. I looked at the map of the Olympic Green Tennis Center, only to discover that it's not part of the Olympic Green. The map didn't tell me, however, where it is. I tried to find it online using China Mobile's 2.5G mobile Internet service in conjunction with my 2G Apple iPhone. That didn't help much either. So I turned to a couple of the earnest young volunteers and asked. Their estimate of a 30-40 minute walk was too little by about 30-40 minutes, but we got there. Thanks, technology.

When we got to the tennis center, it was still raining, so I tried to get a weather update via mInfo. China Mobile's 3G system failed to connect repeatedly. I found a site with a forecast for official Olympics weather (in Chinese) with my iPhone, predicting the rain would stop after 6 p.m., which turned out to be spot on. When first Federer and then Venus Williams were upset (as was Serena on a different court), I let people know via text and Twitter. I thought my friends would like to know and share the news. I guess that's what technology is for, to help us share stuff.

The guys from Atos Origin told me Wednesday that everything was running smoothly. From their vantage point in the Technical Operations Center, the Olympic IT headquarters in the northwest corner of the Olympic Green, they see all, from security breaches to server outages. So far, so good, an assessment that would apply to the games generally as much as its IT operations specifically.

In fact, I learned a new phrase from Twitter today: story-starved, as in the media having nothing to report. The amount of non-sports news available exists in an inverse proportion to how well the games are going. That people have time to write about fake fireworks at the opening ceremony is because most things are going well so far, and the quality of competition has been fantastic.

Technology is certainly playing a role at the games, but what this Olympics reminds us of more than anything is that it is man or woman, not machine, that are most amazing. It's great that there are super-sleek pants that make swimmers faster, but even if everyone swam in boxers, Michael Phelps would be an incredible athlete. It's still a human being that has to go higher, faster, farther, no matter what systems are behind them to provide analysis.

Technology, whether it's instantaneous Internet updates, high-definition television or laser-precision scoring, enhances our enjoyment of this exceptional event. But strip all those things away and the accomplishments of the athletes are still amazing. So when it's all over on Aug. 24, turn off the HDTV, put down the BlackBerry, log off, and go for a run. Or a bike ride. Or a swim. Anything that will remind you that the system you have is already pretty darn robust, scalable and available.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.