Jumping hurdles on the road to Rio 2016: AOC's head of IT Anthony Soulsby
- 22 June, 2016 13:56
“Comply, comply, comply” is the advice issued to athletes by the Australian Olympic Committee should they encounter muggers in Rio de Janeiro, “hand over whatever you have on you and do not resist or fight.”
It’s a stark reminder that the city, which hosts the 2016 Olympic Summer Games in a matter of weeks, can be a dangerous one. This week, Paralympian Liesl Tesch and her physiotherapist were mugged at gunpoint in broad daylight in Flamengo Beach, where the sailing events will be held.
Meanwhile, samples of water taken from the same beach were found to contain a super bacteria that can cause hard-to-treat and often fatal infections. It is likely something to do with the enormous amount of raw sewage that flows from the city into the sea there.
Rio’s interim governor called a "state of public calamity" on his finance stricken city, warning of the "total collapse" in public services.
Then there's the Zika virus. And yellow fever. And with Brazil's president currently facing an impeachment trial, there's the distinct possibility of anti-government protests breaking out. Needless to say, the Australian government's travel advice for those travelling to the Games is extensive.
The four hundred plus Australian athletes and their support teams heading to Rio will need to ignore all the city’s woes and stay focused. Five-time Olympian Natalie Cook urged them “to keep their eyes on the prize and don’t be distracted”.
Helping them do just that is Anthony Soulsby, general manager of IT at the AOC and his team. Athletes, their support teams, technicians, drivers, officials, VIPs, medical teams and the media will be relying on him to keep them connected and maintain the flow of data.
Race to the finish line
Nothing is guaranteed at Rio 2016. While the International Olympic Committee is promising visitors a ‘high-performance transport ring’ the new subway line to transport passengers from Ipanema Beach to the Olympic Park is not yet finished, let alone tested. When Soulsby arrives in Brazil at beginning of July he’ll be working with what there is.
“Every Games is a race to have all the infrastructure put in place,” he says. “And then to make sure that everything is then going to actually work. We’ll have to wait and see exactly what the environment is.
"The thing with Games, the organising committee will say ‘we’re going to supply this, this and this’ and that’s great. We arrive and we find what we find.”
With that in mind, he is designing systems that are “deployed quickly, easily supported and repaired if and when we have any dramas”.
All involved in Australia’s Olympic effort will need live results data, events schedules, voice calls and video conferencing. They’ll need to be able to book transport between venues, find replacement equipment and view visual feeds for performance analysis. They’ll need handsets, radios, computers and assistance if anything fails – and back-ups when it does.
Brazil is not an ordinary IT environment. Even at Soulsby’s team base in the Olympic village, basics like power, data, speeds and transport could prove unreliable.
“Obvious things can change during a Games period,” says Soulsby. “We need to have some sort of alternate. What are we going to do in terms of back up for internet? What are we going to do in terms of back up for power? Redundancies are really important.
“My experience tells me that it’s not until you actually get there and put the load on you’re going to find out what’s happening. They’ll be millions of people in the Olympic precinct. The level of service they were hoping to put in perhaps might not be realised fully. It’s just like New Year’s Eve every day.
“I think it wouldn’t be a responsible thing for me to be trying to implement something that I don’t think will even run.”
The electricity supply in Rio is unstable. It runs at 110 volts but can fluctuate in bad weather and between locations. In March, Brazilian newspaper Estadao reported it had seen internal IOC documents that warned that Rio’s power supply problem was 'high risk'.
“The unique challenge with Rio is the way they distribute their power. You get a lot of freelancing on power grids,” says Soulsby. “The big one with Rio is solving some of the power supply issues that were having.
“I’ve been doing a lot of work in and around if we have a power outage or if we have a reduced voltage supply. What systems are we going to go onto? So we’re looking at some nice back up battery units that will be running.”
Although most of the systems being deployed across nine locations are cloud based, Soulsby is installing local network-attached storage so nothing is lost in a black-out. “I’m not relying on anyone else to provide that network – that’s backed up with my power,” he said.
Connectivity is also variable. Internet speeds are often woefully less than advertised. Reception issues are compounded by Rio’s mountainous geography.
“It’s not really a 4G environment there,” explains Soulsby. “It’s been advertised as one. My testing suggests it’s more like two, two point something. Plain text, simple 2G SMS style messaging is our friend over there.
“Rio is beautiful, it’s spectacular and wonderful but these big blocks of rock, they just cut things out. Simple things like voice calls can become really difficult. You could be talking to someone here and they walk to the end of the room and it’ll drop out.”
To overcome these challenges, AOC vehicles are being turned into mobile hotspots and charging stations in a bid to avoid the “challenging mix” of low charging and poor connection.
The team will also be utilising microwaves for file transfers, once approval from the Brazilian government comes through.
“We’re putting that in ourselves,” says Soulsby, “mainly because it gives us control. I’m hoping it will give us a bit of a competitive edge and really give us some dedicated speeds – business quality up and down speeds.”
Soulsby’s road to Rio began not long after the closing ceremony of London 2012. The AOC is responsible for administering data on all of its athletes.
It’s required for everything from competitors’ accreditation, their visas, booking flights, their event passes to athlete social media accounts and what size shoes they receive.
“The data is probably the most significant piece,” says Soulsby. “And if the data is in anyway wrong - there’s nothing worse. Take something simple like a pair of shoes. If we’ve got the wrong size for those shoes, an athlete puts those shoes on, walks around for three days, blisters up - it becomes a really important part.
“It kicks off a long time in advance. We have a long list of athletes that might make it – we start with nearly 2,000.”
His team uses a cloud based proprietary software that – “follows the process you need to put in an athlete from potential, to travelling, competing, and getting them home”.
Keeping everything running from the lighting of the torch in the opening ceremony to the final event is a marathon effort.
"That’s a long period of time and people start to get tired," says Soulsby. "When people get tired, things will get lost, things will get broken, things will get damaged. I'm worried about theft too. Things that seem simple become critical. If you’ve suddenly lost your device you’ve got a problem."
Soulsby selects his team based on their stamina and ability to stay cool under pressure.
"Making sure that my team are calm, we're collected and we're in control – that’s hard. That's probably the biggest challenge. Any of my support staff who are not calm and collected are not the right people. It does take a particular type of person to do it. [So I'm] making sure the right people are doing the right jobs."
He’s also enlisting local contractors to work with local suppliers.
“The locals know where to go if there’s a problem, plus they speak the language,” says Soulsby, who admits his Portuguese is ‘non-existent’. “One of the challenges has been communicating with the various suppliers that I need to work with, and phone and email is not the best solution in that part of the world.
“[You need] people on the ground that can actually sit down across the table and get across what we’re trying to do.”
It’s not just the athletes who want to excel. Soulsby has been involved in sports communications since the Sydney 2000 torch relay. He joined the AOC ten years ago and has been to the Winter Games in Torino, Vancouver and Sochi and the Summer Games in Beijing and London.
“I want my solutions to be in the top few of the world as well,” says Soulsby. “It’s a global stage, we don’t have the resources of some of the bigger teams but we’re a pretty big team and we’ve got high expectations so I have that same expectation of my solutions.
“We work in a group of other NOCs and we talk and we help each other to a certain level. If it’s general stuff – if we’ve got a problem with the organising committee, say it’s Wi-Fi, we’ll all work together to try and get that solved. But if you start to talk about anything that’s going to give me a performance edge – maybe it is in the vision, or how I’m going to transfer my files around, then I’m going to keep that to myself.
“There’s an understanding that you’re there to win.”