Gold for innovation: The technology legacy of the London 2012 Olympics

The 2012 London Olympic Games was, by any standard, a resounding success. Few Brits will recall a time when the country came together in such a show of unity and celebration.

There are a number of words that will forever be synonymous with the event – Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Bradley Wiggins being the obvious ones for their personal sporting achievements.

But there is one thing that is brought up in nostalgic Olympics conversations almost as much as Boris Johnson’s awkward zip wire incident, and that is legacy.

It was an essential consideration of the event’s organising committee: when the dust settles on the Olympic Park and the last flag is swept away, what enduring value will prevail from hosting the Games?

There’s certainly no shortage of contenders, and few can look past the effect on the economy. The UK reportedly received a £9.9 billion trade and investment boost from the Games, which enabled the fastest quarterly growth since the financial crisis hit, helping to end the worst double-dip recession since the 1950s.

Then there is the physical legacy. Before London won the hosting rights, Stratford and surrounding areas were largely polluted post-industrial wasteland. Now, vast regeneration, including new homes, transport links and state-of-the-art venues, makes East London the UK’s most up-and-coming area. Out of every pound spent on the Olympic build, 75 pence is being invested in this project.

That’s not forgetting other world-class sporting venues across the UK that were spawned from the Games, and government initiatives to encourage healthier and more active living among British youth.

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But there is one vital legacy that has been largely overlooked: technology. The CIO of the London Olympics, Gerry Pennell, certainly thinks so.

‘The biggest legacy comes from the work we did with the IOC and some of the sponsors,’ he says. ‘Some of the software has been moved along quite a bit, and that will be a legacy into the Olympic movement. Also, a lot of the PCs ended up in education.’

In reflection, however, Pennell is most proud of the staff in his IT team, who, along with him, left permanent jobs to work with the prospect of redundancy once the Games were over.

‘A lot of our staff had an extraordinary experience and have learnt a lot because it was such an intense programme in a relatively short space of time.’

Therefore, ‘the real legacy is on two legs’, he says, referring to the people who have gone on to benefit other organisations with the skills they gathered from their Olympics experience. Particularly, Pennell’s team had around 40 interns – students doing a sandwich year out of university – who worked with the IT department.

‘I think that you’re always reading in the paper about big technology programmes that go wrong – quite often in the public sector – and that’s true, they do go wrong from time to time and money gets wasted,’ says Pennell, who is now CIO of Manchester University. ‘So I think we were able to demonstrate that the UK can deliver huge technology programmes on time and on budget to a very high quality indeed.’

Let’s get physical

In terms of physical IT, the UK has most benefited from the infrastructure that BT laid down to support the Games.

To deliver the pictures, texts, phone calls and video required, a mammoth task began shortly after the awarding of the bid in 2005 to create ICT systems that were fit for the most digitally enabled Games ever.

BT designed and delivered the first ever converged communications network for a summer Olympics, carrying voice, data, mobile, broadcast and wireless internet traffic on one seamless, all-purpose network.

This converged network meant improved energy efficiency, avoiding the need to build and power separate networks, and maximising the potential for its reuse after the Games.

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At peak times, the network was carrying 60 gigabits of information a second between 80,000 connections across 94 locations, which was four times the network capacity of the Beijing Games.

And despite the mobility of the Games being well expected, nobody could have predicted that, at peak, 60% of the load would come from devices accessing either the London 2012 mobile website or one of the mobile apps.

This was especially driven by the real-time results that the tech team was driving to those platforms, so there’s little wonder that load peaked when Andy Murray won gold in the men’s tennis final.

‘You could see that people were checking it as the tennis match advanced point by point,’ Pennel says. ‘But the net result of that was that there was more load being driven back to our central servers than we had anticipated, so in terms of what we might have done differently technically, we would have probably scaled that a little differently had we predicted just how much mobile load there would be.’

The greatest honour

Delivering the first mobile Games turned out to be Pennell’s greatest challenge, and subsequently his most celebrated achievement.

He was previously CIO for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, but this was a new level of success, which he was rewarded for in January 2013 with an OBE in the Queen’s honours list.

‘Probably the big challenge and worry was around the infrastructure that was carrying all the data between our systems and consumers’ devices, because the 3G network in London at the time was limited in its capacity to support simultaneous data conversations,’ he says.

‘If you put that in a situation where lots of people are potentially in the same place at the same time – like in some of our venues – we could see a scenario arising where we had the application on people’s phones at one end and the data available on our systems at the other, but no transport to get them from one to the other as the networks potentially clogged up.’

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As such, it’s a ‘tribute’, Pennell says, to how well the UK telecommunications industry came together to construct mobile infrastructure to provide a decent level of voice and data service.

And also to BT, which, with Cisco, created the largest public Wi-Fi installation in the world across the Olympic Park.

‘Those two infrastructure pieces were really the things that were critical to actually delivering that mobile experience for people who were in and around the venues.’

So while people will reminisce about Farah’s double gold or Ennis’s heptathlon glory for years to come, technology enthusiasts will reflect on the precedent set by the first mobile Olympics and the legacy that it left.

But as a riposte to those who say technology trivialises the human touch, Pennell is most championing of what people can achieve when they’re all facing the same way.

‘I know that sounds a little trite,’ he says, ‘but it really proved to be true. For me, the big takeaway would be just how powerful that is when you really have people working towards a common goal. It’s awesome in terms of its power to mobilise the team.’

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...