Game changer: The first Olympic games in the cloud

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Hosted at an unprecedented time due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 Summer Olympics (branded as Tokyo 2020, held in 2021, and officially called Games of the XXXII Olympiad) will be remembered for not just the extraordinary performances of the athletes, but also for being one of the most technologically advanced Games ever hosted.

Cloud technology was used for the first time at the Olympics and, as a technologist, I’m thrilled to see cloud technologies playing an instrumental role in driving the digital transformation of the Games. The cloud infrastructure enabled innovative technology applications, so the Games could successfully overcome many of the hurdles put in place by the pandemic while creating a new foundation for how the Olympic Games—and other major sporting events—will be broadcast, organized, and engage with fans in the future. Needless to say, we are already excited about the opportunities that cloud technology will unlock in future Olympiads.

The biggest technological change since satellite transmission

By way of example of how cloud technology revolutionized Tokyo 2020, we should look at one of the most important components—the global broadcast community serving millions of viewers. The Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) produced more than 9,500 hours of content during the Games, 30% more than during Rio 2016, and with some of the content in 8K for the first time. This year in Tokyo, when no spectators were allowed on-site, the role of broadcasters became even more essential for the Games and global fans. 

By collaborating with OBS to support service delivery for rights-holding broadcasters (RHBs) for the very first time, a robust and secure cloud platform called OBS Cloud offered new models for content delivery to drive operational efficiency and greater agility. Operating entirely in the cloud and demonstrating the tremendous flexibility that the technology offers, OBS Cloud was designed to drive real transformation in the media industry and to prepare it for all the opportunities presented by the digital era.

With the pandemic preventing fans from attending the Games, it was imperative that broadcasters globally had access to high-quality content that could be distributed across multiple platforms to help share the drama and the emotion of the Games. To that end, during Tokyo 2020, up to 9,000 short-form content clips were produced by the OBS Content+ crew to help enhance RHB coverage. The clips could be accessed by the RHBs’ digital and social media teams from any location in the world to supplement their own Olympic coverage. This technology enabled broadcasters to cover the Games in a more cost-effective, secure, and flexible way, from any location in the world, ensuring a steady and consistent flow of broadcast content throughout the Games, much to the delight of millions of fans hungry for a slice of the action!

It is easy to understand why this broadcast development excited Yiannis Exarchos, the OBS chief executive officer. In his view, the partnership with Alibaba Cloud has transformed how the Olympic Games were broadcast to the widest possible audience. He reflected on it being “the biggest technological change in the broadcasting industry for more than half a century since the introduction of satellite transmission.” That’s a remarkable landmark, given that satellite transmission was introduced to Olympic broadcast coverage for the first time as far back as 1964.

Also used as part of post-production workflow, the OBS had used the Content+ platform for remote editing and standards conversion, a feature that will be extended as a service to the RHBs for future Olympics.

Protected by the cloud—ensuring staff are safe

Of course,event organizers and working staff are central to the delivery of the Games, and Tokyo 2020 provided its own challenges for them due to the extreme summer heat. To illustrate the risks that Games workers faced, more than 8,000 people in Japan were taken to hospitals suffering from heatstroke symptoms between July 19 and 25 this year, while Tokyo 2020 officially kickstarted on July 23.  

I believe technology can help respond effectively to critical situations like this. That’s why we introduced a cloud-based solution to help reduce the risk of getting heatstroke for the onsite working staff exposed to the weather. Through an intelligent in-ear device, the technology helped keep track of staffers’ body temperature and heart rate. Based on this information and the surrounding heat index (including temperature, humidity, and direct or radiant sunlight), a cloud-based system identified the level of heatstroke risk in real time. Alerts were then sent to staff exposed to a high level of risk, along with recommended precautionary measures—such as drinking more water—to reduce the chances of getting heatstroke.

The innovation that was well-received by Hidemasa Nakamura, chief of the Main Operations Centre of the Tokyo Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG). Perhaps even more importantly, it was well-received by Games workers; as it turned out, Tokyo 2020 was reported to be one of the hottest Olympic Games in history.

Ongoing engagement with fans

Regretfully, the pandemic prevented global fans from being present at the Games. But technology can always play a positive role in addressing challenges. Last year, we spent significant time working with TOCOG on a digital remote fan engagement program called “Share the Passion.” Leveraging the cloud and digital editing technology, this fantastic project encouraged sports fans globally to support their favorite teams and athletes on a more personal level, wherever the fan or the team is based. It took advantage of AI-powered technology to aggregate real-time videos uploaded by fans on social media platforms, and broadcast them in venues to deliver cheers, support, and motivation for the athletes. You can imagine the excitement that this innovative solution provided, while projecting high-energy, positive vibes among fans and athletes alike with the audience’s cheers filling the arena.

Connection is irreplaceable, and Olympic Games are one of the best examples of connectivity between fans and athletes, different generations, and sports communities across borders. Holding true to this value, we created our first Cloud Pin, a cloud-based digital pin designed for broadcast and media professionals working relentlessly to cover the Games for all of us. The wearable digital device enables the contact-free exchange of information, and was designed to help media professionals working at the International Broadcasting Centre and Main Press Centre to connect with each other and exchange social media handles in a safe and interactive manner. Worn either as a badge or attached to a lanyard, it marries the convention of swapping contact details with real-time, cloud-based convenience.

Other exciting initiatives further encouraged fan and audience participation. For instance, the IOC launched The Olympic Store on Alibaba’s e-commerce platform Tmall. In addition to being a global store for fans seeking official Olympic-branded merchandise, it also acts as an information portal to help keep fans up to date with all the latest Olympic news and information. It’s a place where retail and commerce merge to further delight sports fans, while taking the Games into a new era of fan participation.

Unleashing athletes’ full potential

Other beneficiaries of cloud technology—and many would say the most important—were the athletes themselves, through a technology called 3D Athlete Tracking (3DAT).

In collaboration with Intel, 3DAT gives audiences professional insights into athletes’ performance as it happens. Without the need for motion-tracking sensors, 3DAT leverages standard video, AI, and computer vision to extract over 20 points in 3D on the athlete’s body, transforming those data into rich visualizations to enhance broadcasters’ storytelling for key events.

Looking ahead to even more exciting sporting experiences

During our first Summer Olympics, we are pleased to have taken our sponsorship role to a new level that goes beyond the traditional commercial package. As an exclusive worldwide partner for cloud services, we are honored to provide a new cloud-based foundation for how the Games were broadcast and operated in many ways. Similarly, we believe that the cloud will play an important role in reshaping the experience of how major sporting events would be broadcast, organized, and shared with fans in the future. We are proud of the role we played in helping Tokyo 2020 to reshape the sports and broadcast industry in an unprecedented way. And we are not stopping there; Tokyo 2020 was just the start of the digitalization journey of the Olympic Games.

This content was produced by Alibaba Cloud. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.