July 24, 1996 (also ZAVTRA, December 1996)


Atlanta 1996: A Showcase of American IT Supremacy Turns Into...

A 5-Ring Circus

IBM Paid $80 Million for "Privilege" of Being Butt of Jokes, Pity or Scorn

By Bob Djurdjevic


PHOENIX, July 24, 1996 - It was supposed to be a showcase of IBM’s information-era technology, a triumph of American superiority in this important 21st century endeavor. It has ended up a PR nightmare for the New World Order. IBM and the Atlanta Olympics’ organizers gave a new meaning to a three-ring circus. They made it a five-ring circus!

For IBM, which blew $80-million-and counting on the "privilege" of being the butt of jokes, pity or scorn - take your pick - at the Atlanta Olympics, it was a also humbling experience.

"We’re obviously very upset about it," said Rick Thoman, IBM’s chief financial officer, when quizzed about the Olympics debacle on July 25 by Wall Street analysts.

What went wrong? Some of IBM’s systems and networks, much ballyhooed before the Olympics, produced late, or even inaccurate, information provided to the media, and/or to the Internet.

My first visit to the IBM Olympic Web site on July 24, for example, revealed an immense absence of common sense. And an overwhelming presence of trivia and irrelevance.

Practically every child in the U.S. could tell you that basketball games cannot end in a tie. But tell it to the IBM Olympics software developers! Big Blue’s "final score" of the Australia vs. Brazil game was 82-82. The America On-Line scoreboard, did have the correct "final score," however, a 109-101 victory for Australia, in the second overtime. And just think, AOL didn’t pay anything at all, as far as we know, let alone $80 million which IBM had forked out, to best the Big Blue at a simple game of score reporting! "Common sense über alles?"

Conclusion: Evidently, the IBM Olympic software "wizzards" didn’t provide for basketball games going into overtime?

Duh... Great "dunk," Big Blue!  Duh...

But you can find out at the IBM Web site, in almost an instant, all you’d ever want to know about a country. If only it were true...

I checked out Yugoslavia, for example. It’s a country in "Southeastern Europe, north of Greece," IBM said.

So far, so good.

IBM even provided a very detailed map of Yugoslavia (which took FOREVER to print - so DON’T do it!). And you could find out that Yugoslavia’s population was supposedly 2,159,503 (as of July 1995), consisting of Macedonians, who comprise 65% of the total, Albanians, with 22% share, etc.

Hm... The predominant ethnic group in Yugoslavia are the Serbs, not Macedonians. And the country has close to 10 million people, not two.

But this was the clincher for me: The "Chief of State" of this "Yugoslavia" was Kiro Gligorov, according to Big Blue.

That’s when the penny dropped. IBM had substituted Macedonia for Yugoslavia!

Oh well... What’s "a country here, and country there," given that there are 197 countries at the Atlanta Olympics? Especially since neither Serbia’s President Slobodan Milosevic, nor Macedonia’s Gligorov, were competing for a medal, lest it was for a communist rust-belt medal.

But I have to admit that I did not expect my next surprise at the IBM Web site.

Since IBM offers an "athlete profiles" system, I requested the information on Vlade Divac, a basketball star for NBA’s Lakers for the last seven years.

"No data available for this athlete," IBM replied.

So I just pushed a button, any button for any basketball player.

It turned out to be a certain "Aleksandr Djordevic."

This "Djordevic" was an "M," the IBM system said, implying that this specimen was a "male" player.

"Not bad," I thought.

Close, but no cigar.

For, this "Aleksandr Djordevic" was actually "Aleksandar Djordjevic."

Can’t tell the difference?

Join the IBM Olympic software developers crowd.

"So what’s a consonant here, a vowel, there?" you may wonder.


Try misspelling the IBM chairman’s name (Lou Gerstner): "Loo here, Lou there." See how far up the IBM Armonk ladder such a "faux pas" would get you...


Oh, want to find out what tomorrow’s weather is going to be like in Atlanta, according to the IBM Olympic Web page?

By now, we’re sure you’ve got the idea. Better just to look out the window.


As a result of all these IBM failures, many media outlets at the Olympics resorted to a back-up solution which even the ancient Greeks could have understood. They used human runners to deliver results from various venues to their press centers. The modern-day media also installed FAX-es and laptops. And IBM itself started FAX-ing the results, where the on-line systems had failed.

It was the ultimate victory of Homo Sapiens over technology. And what better place to showcase man, but at the Olympics? Ancient Greeks would have loved it!


This editorial column was also published in a Russian translation by ZAVTRA, a Moscow newspaper, in December 1996.

Bob Djurdjevic
Phoenix, Arizona


P.S. In August 1996, one month after this Big Blue Olympics debacle, this writer attended an IBM executive conference in Toronto, Canada, in which its senior executives, from the chairman Lou Gerstner on down, espoused about all the wonderful technological milestones they had achieved in Atlanta. Millions of this, trillions of that, gazillions of another techno mumbo-jumbo gobbledy gook.  Yet this writer could not help but chuckle thinking of a one-liner a Truth in Media reader had sent him: "'Noah's Ark' was designed by the amateurs.  'Titanic' was designed by the (industrial era) pros."

Ultimately, IBM and the Olympics Committee decided to go their separate ways after the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Surprise, surprise...

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