Mike Rowbottom

Adrian Corcoran, head of venue technology at the Baku 2015 European Games, saw a nice cartoon the other day. It was a variation on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which expresses human requirements in the form of a triangle, with the most imperative at the base - breathing, food, water, shelter - rising to more esoteric desiderata such as love/belonging, esteem and self-actualisation.

Anyway, this cartoon had a triangle showing the base requirement as wi-fi access. Arf arf! But it’s sort of true..

As I write this, I am sitting in the press tribune of the Heydar Aliyev Arena watching frenetic judo action across three different mats, and attempting to convey something of the activity in a live blog. And a few minutes ago the wi-fi - perhaps overstretched, as the press seats here are packed - faltered. Slowed. Stopped. Recovered. Slowed. Returned…

At such moments you realise just how much, how worryingly much, we all depend upon technology. Professionally, wi-fi is at the base of my triangle right now…

What would the equivalent have been like back in the day? Well, it would have been as if someone had come along and put a paper bag over your head. Cut off. Blind. Helpless.

But as I say, it was only a falter, and the Baku 2015 wi-fi has worked - touch wood - like a dream for most of the Games.

Which is in large part down to the efforts of Mr Corcoran and his team at the Organising Committee’s Technical Operations Centre (TOC) in the Baku 2015 offices in Freedom Square.

But as I say, it was only a falter, and the Baku 2015 wi-fi has worked - touch wood - like a dream for most of the Games.  Which is in large part down to the efforts of Mr Corcoran and his team at the organising committee’s Technical Operations Centre in the BEGOC offices in Freedom Square.
Adrian Corcoran is doing for Baku 2015 what he did for the London 2012 Games as head of venue technology ©BEGOC

The TOC, indeed, have gone above and beyond this week in rescuing my colleague Elliot Willis from the ultimate nightmare – the exploding laptop. His million pound Mac, or however much he said it cost, went, as we like to say in non-technical circles, kaput. And so the TOC sorted him out with another laptop. Although as he has mentioned, it doesn’t do all the things his old one did…

Corcoran’s colleague Alan Crompton points out that day two in any big championship tends to be the peak day in terms of IT problems, as everyone gets to grips with the system and shakes out any glitches.

On day two, there were more than 300 individual requests for assistance. Now that figure has dropped to around 100 a day…

Making sure things run smoothly for the journalists and broadcasters here, supplying them with the data, power and internet access they need, ensuring the timing and results service works perfectly, in coordination with the providers, Tissot, all of these are part of the quite frankly hideously complex task which the TOC are undertaking.

They have to oversee the accreditation system, the medical system, the transport system, arrivals and departures…no detail is too small worry about. The whole thing involves 140 different applications…

I have to ask Corcoran, who performed this same role at the London 2012 Olympics, if he is a tidy person when he is at home. “My wife says I’m a control freak,” he says with a grin. “I don’t think I am…”

He is happy to accept the metaphor of a referee for the TOC.  “If we are invisible, then the Games have been successful,” he adds.

Although Corcoran has been fired in the furnace that was the London 2012 Games, the European Games has presented its own peculiar challenges, given that it is the first, and that he and his team had effectively less than two years in which to conceive and execute this vast interconnected puzzle.

The Technical Operations Centre at the Games Organising Committee's HQ in Freedom Square contains 165 team members, of which 65 per cent are Azerbaijani
The Technical Operations Centre at the Games Organising Committee's HQ in Freedom Square contains 165 team members, of which 65 per cent are Azerbaijani ©Baku 2015

“We started with a blank sheet of paper, and a vastly reduced timescale,” he says. “So we had to take a different view of things…it was more of a revolution than an evolution..”

The other challenge was finding enough persons of IT expertise to make the programme work.  “There are some very good technical people here, but the population of the whole country is only equivalent to that of London, and the IT industry is less developed in what is a smaller market.”

So the big thing to know about the IT for these Games is that it is fully cloud-based, unlike the London 2012 Games, which was a mixture of an IT cloud and more old-style systems involving unique construction and maintenance.

“And what is a ‘cloud’?” I hear you ask. Well. OK. A “cloud”, so far as I understand it, is a kind of space for rent, where you can buy into access, use what you need, and then leave again without having to build any physical systems of data storage.

Please don’t push me on this...

“At London 2012, the data centre had 149 racks,” says Corcoran. “Here we have less than 15.”

So why hasn’t everyone done this? Well, that’s technology for you – always advancing.

“This is the future, as far as the International Olympic Committee are concerned,” he says. “We had IOC (International Olympic Committee) delegates at our technical rehearsals, and this is the model they want to deploy for future Games.

“At the moment, data storage takes up around 22-23 per cent of an organising committee’s budget. So they are certainly going to reduce costs.”

The team busy behind him on the third floor of the Baku 2015 office is a blended operation involving a wide range of organisations, including the Ministry of Communications, Tissot and the Ministry of Security, who are monitoring cyber-threats to the system.

“It’s very robust, and we have not had any significant problems so far,” Corcoran says.

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Tissot are involved closely in ensuring that Baku 2015 offers the best technology solutions available ©Tissot

However, the operation has not been without its local difficulties. At around midnight last Wednesday one of the fibre feeds for the broadcasters became suddenly inoperative.

Action stations in the early hours of Thursday morning. The Deputy Minister of Communications personally supervised the investigative work, and the problem was resolved by 03.10.

The problem being that someone had lit a bonfire on a piece of waste ground, under which the vital fibre  - “we call it dark fibre for the broadcasters” - just happened to run, and melted it.

But notice that earlier phrase: “one of”.

This is the key to the secure TOC operation. Everything is replicated. There was another broadcasting fibre system in place, just in case. As there is with the wi-fi.

Corcoran is proud of the fact that 65 per cent of his team of 165 are Azerbaijani.

“There is a significant physical legacy of our programme in terms of the infrastructure we have created,” Corcoran says. “But the most exciting legacy is the knowledge legacy. We have been able to recruit raw talent in the form of local graduates with no bad habits, and created a team which will now be in an ideal position to work on future sporting events coming to Baku, such as the Islamic Solidarity Games and Formula 1 racing.”