Passing the torch
PROJECT LEADERS WORKING ON UPCOMING OLYMPIC GAMES LOOK TO BEIJING, CHINA FOR LESSONS ON WHAT TO EMULATE—AND WHAT TO AVOID.
BY SIMON KENT
The flame is extinguished and the flags furled, yet the spirit of the Olympics lives on through the work of those preparing for the upcoming games.
But it's not just the athletes getting in shape.
Project managers are studying up on all the lessons learned from those who planned and managed this summer's spectacle in Beijing, China.
“The success of each Olympic Games relies and depends on knowledge and experience being transferred from previous games,” says Jeremy Hore, chief technology integrator for Atos Origin, Paris, France.
The company has plenty of experience to tap into. Since the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, the tech giant has managed the IT system used at the games to relay information on the events, results and individual competitors to spectators and media around the world. And Atos’ contract with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) extends to the 2012 event in London, England.
For the 2008 games, Mr. Hore teamed up with the Beijing Organizing Committee (BOCOG) and a consortium of tech providers that included Chinese managers who had worked at previous games.
The experience paid off. For example, although the scale of the Beijing IT infrastructure was similar to the 2004 games, the IT team processed 80 percent more competition data for media and news agencies worldwide. Beijing also saw the first delivery of real-time results through an Olympic Games intranet that could be accessed remotely. The team then set up 2,500 terminals across the Olympic venues where members of the public could tap into the service.
Because Olympic IT involves integrating the technologies of both multinationals and national companies, cultural differences that translate to the way companies conduct business can create hurdles that even the most talented track star would find difficult to clear.
“It is challenging to keep everyone working under the same framework,” Mr. Hore says. “However it helps that the goal is very well-defined and all partners want the games to be a success.”
It also helps that the IOC is making it a point to foster knowledge-sharing between current and pending host cities. Future organizing committees were given access to the Beijing games—before and during the events.
And this year, in conjunction with roughly 20 international sports federations, the IOC took a further step toward encouraging cross-fertilization by arranging an October summit of host cities in Lausanne, Switzerland. The conference brought together representatives of 30 cities that have hosted, will host or wish to host the Olympic or Youth Olympic Games.
Each Olympic site presents its own unique circumstances, of course. The team working on the 2010 games in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, for example, will be challenged by hostile weather conditions at high-altitude locations. In London, shorter distances between sport venues may ease travel concerns but create space constraints. Still, experience gleaned from one location can be used as part of the plan for another.
Paul May, head of venue development for The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG), says he was impressed by the sophistication of the Beijing operation in areas such as transportation, logistics, staffing and catering.
Armed with the experience of seeing Beijing's venues first-hand, Mr. May has identified issues to focus on for London 2012. One obvious issue: the condensed urban environs. “We don't have the luxury of lots of space in London so we need to be operationally efficient,” he says.
Aerial view of the London 2012 Olympic stadium
Beijing kept the events moving quickly, but there should have been more areas where people could gather, says Tim Parr, head of capital programs and major events at Deloitte, London. He visited the Beijing games as part of a sponsor's observation program arranged by LOCOG.
“There needed to be more atmosphere and social space around the stadiums,” he says. “You needed somewhere to relax and discuss what you'd seen.”
Mr. Parr believes London 2012 will add that missing piece.
The city's lack of a Beijing-sized budget could make it tough to pull off a gold medal performance, however. The London Games have an estimated budget of £9.3 billion put forward by the U.K. government—less than half the approximately $42 billion spent on the Beijing games, which rank as the most expensive in history.
The politics of the host country can also make a difference. Much of Beijing's efficiency can be traced to China's autocratic government—and that will be difficult to translate to Western democracies. Project leaders will have to adapt their project management tools and techniques to the culture at hand. “The Chinese work more in a command and control environment,” Mr. Parr says. “In London, it's more about empowerment.”
The Beijing team, for example, built a dedicated highway specifically to take traffic to the rowing location. But in the United Kingdom, such a feat would require massive planning, consulting, buying land and ensuring the diverse stakeholders affected by the route were adequately consulted at all times in its construction.
SET THE BAR HIGH
Since the Centennial Olympic Congress of 1994, the organizers of the games are being scored in a new event: sustainability. Teams must now manage the environmental impact of the event and ensure a clear sustainability agenda runs throughout.
The U.K. government's budget for the 2012 games
The Chinese government's budget for the 2008 games
Beijing, China received mixed grades for its sustainability performance during the Olympics Games in a report card issued by Greenpeace.
The U.S.-based environmental advocacy group credited the Beijing operation for its use of energy-saving technologies in the Olympic Village. The city also received high marks for its introduction of a fleet of nearly 3,800 buses running on compressed natural gas—one of the largest fleets in any city in the world.
But Greenpeace also spotted some missed opportunities, such as the development of a better garbage-disposal system to avoid using more landfill space and incineration. The group also argues the innovative sewage-treatment system that used recycled water at the rowing and canoeing venue and the Olympic Village should have been expanded to more sites.
Greenpeace lauded the temporary closure of factories, the rationing of cars and a nearly $20 billion government-led clean-up campaign intended to improve Beijing's air quality before the games. But some of the improvement was more serendipitous, says Kert Davies, Greenpeace research director. The city experienced a lot of air-cleansing rain in the run-up to the games, which alleviated problems with stagnating air.
Greenpeace also questioned why the changes weren't permanent. For example, factories reopened on the final day of the Paralympics—once again filling the air with pollution. Greenpeace says the alternative is for China, or any industrialized nation, to use the games as a catalyst for projects that instigate real and lasting change.
“Everyone in China deserves a level of clean air all the time,” Mr. Davies says. “That's true in the United States and it's true in London, England. If you want progress to stick, it's not enough to do it piecemeal. You need to act globally and reward those who do act wholeheartedly.”
Mr. Davies says he was pleased with some corporate sustainability projects. For example, Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola introduced environmentally friendly drink chiller machines at each Olympic venue.
“It's empowering to see these companies engage with such a project,” he says. “The activities are altruistic, and the fact that these companies will share ideas is great. It's another small breaking of the logjam.”
Vancouver 2010 Olympic ice hockey site
Beijing was looking to play up its green credibility. The Beijing National Stadium, or the so-called “bird's nest,” used natural ventilation, for example. And the National Aquatics Center, or the Water Cube, trapped 90 percent of the solar energy that fell on the building to help heat the pools inside.
That kind of innovation sets a high bar for future host cities. Ann Duffy, corporate sustainability officer for the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC), praises Beijing for delivering on its promises for a green games.
But she sees her own organization taking sustainability to new levels.
“Beijing [organizers] made a difference through their environmental work,” says Ms. Duffy. “But we are focusing not only on the environment but on the social and economic aspects of the games.”
VANOC project leaders aim to see that the games provide meaningful opportunities for local workers and smaller companies in British Columbia.
2010 Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
2012 London, England
2014 Sochi, Russia
THE 2016 CANDIDATES
> Chicago, Illinois, USA
> Madrid, Spain
> Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
> Tokyo, Japan
A decision is expected on 2 October 2009.
Portion of solar energy the Water Cube building in Beijing, China trapped to help heat the pools inside
The sustainability agenda can already be seen in transportation planning for London and Vancouver. London has set a goal of transporting 100 percent of spectators to the games by public transport, bicycle or foot and is upgrading and expanding train stations, railways and the light rail system. Those improvements will be complete two years before the opening ceremony and will continue to serve the local area after the games.
In Vancouver, a light railway from downtown Vancouver to the city's international airport and the city of Richmond is ahead of its scheduled deadline in November 2009. Although the line wasn't part of the bid itself, the Olympics acted as a catalyst for the project, says Jane Bird, CEO of Canada Line Rapid Transit Inc.
The project had been in the planning stages since the late 1960s, but it took on an added urgency as the city realized there was no way a construction site could be operating in the heart of the city in 2010. The system had to be completed before the games started or shelved until the Olympians returned home.
“Building these kinds of projects is hard to do,” says Ms. Bird. “It's hard to get traction, to get the money and commitment. It has been a happy coincidence that the Olympic venues are in a populated corridor and that it's the same corridor as the airport.”
Ms. Bird describes Canada Line as 98 percent dedicated to the future of the city and two percent dedicated to the Olympics. That two percent can be seen in elements such as the seamless way the rail system integrates with the airport. It can also be seen at the station stop at the Olympic Village, a new development that will also be home to permanent residents when the games are over.
Whatever the local challenges, the aim of each delivery organization is the same—to create a great sporting event. Just as the organizing committees cannot ignore the communities affected by their work, they cannot ignore the opinions, practices and advice of those who have already been there. Every organization benefits from a helping hand, so when the Olympic flag is passed on to the next host, it is only right that a good deal of advice should go with it. PM
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