Few sporting events have undergone such transformation as the Commonwealth Games. It started life as the British Empire Games in 1930 and has since morphed into the most visible product of the Commonwealth – itself originally envisioned as a vehicle for Britain to maintain some influence over its former colonies.
The function and ambitions of both organisation and sporting event have altered dramatically in the past century and the lead up to the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham was dominated by discussions about the future of both.
What was the purpose of the Commonwealth in a post-colonial world, and would its eponymous sporting festival continue to appeal to athletes and fans in the modern sporting landscape?
In an era where multi-sport events are challenged by costs, logistics and sustainability, even the Olympic Games has struggled to find host cities, leading to an overhaul of its selection process. Indeed, Birmingham itself was chosen because the original host city, Durban, withdrew over cost concerns.
The Commonwealth Games is a sizeable event in its own right – Birmingham 2022 featured 19 sports, 6,000 athletes and technical officials, and 72 participating nations and territories – but aside from a few notable exceptions like lawn bowls and netball, few would argue that it rivals the Olympics in terms of sporting achievement.
However, the Games have proven nothing if not adaptable and have managed to carve out a niche in the market. The absence of many major sporting powers affords smaller nations a place on the big stage, there are now more women’s events than men’s, and para events are held alongside able bodied disciplines.
The Commonwealth Games has a reputation as the ‘friendly games’ that sometimes betrays the ferocity of competition. In the end, Birmingham 2022 was a success from a sporting and societal standpoint with good attendances, some great sport, and the intangible glow that such events bring to the local population.
Technology and legacy
But the legacy of Birmingham 2022 will be a key metric for both the organising committee and the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF).
Due to withdrawal of Durban in February 2017, Birmingham 2022 was organised in a much more condensed timeframe than usual. Organisers also made use of mainly existing venues, reducing costs. While both these factors were born of necessity, those involved believe it could be a model for future multi-sport events to follow.
This vision impacted the technological strategy for the Games. The CGF wanted Birmingham 2022 to establish technological and knowledge-sharing frameworks that would be used in future events. Meanwhile, local legacy was important to organisers who wanted to have an impact on the local community from the start of the process, not just after the show had left town.
The technology operation was vastly complex, and utterly essential – without the necessary systems and connectivity in place there is no sport. However, both the CGF and the organising committee believe they delivered a functional, resilient technological operation that will also leave a lasting legacy.
The technology team at Birmingham 2022 were responsible for everything from ‘normal’ IT services like hardware, software and supporting infrastructure to sports-specific technology like timing, scoring and results, as well as Games-specific applications like transport booking systems, digital platforms, and host broadcasting services.
Housed in the technology operations centre (TOC), the team served all 20 competition and non-competition venues, including the main athletics arena at Alexander Stadium in the north of Birmingham, the organising committee headquarters in the city centre and the Lee Valley VeloPark in London which hosted the cycling.
Among those involved were official IT services partner NVT Group, official timing and scoring partner Longines, and official smart environments supporter North. Aruba, the networking arm of Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), was responsible for delivering the networks that would connect venues, organisers, athletes, coaches, federations, press, medical officials and the critical systems essential for the smooth running of the Games.
The Birmingham 2022 technology operation managed all 20 competition and non-competition venues (Image credit: Aruba)
Connecting the venues
At its peak, the Games involved more than 14,000 volunteers, 30,000 contractors and 2,000 technical officials.
The condensed timescale and the use of existing venues, coupled with a global pandemic, made Birmingham 2022 a different proposition to a standard multi-sport event.
“Normally a host city has about six years, but Birmingham has had less than four and things only really accelerated in the two and a half years [leading up to the Games],” Simon Wilson, chief technology officer at Aruba UK & Ireland, tells SportsPro. “It’s a marathon that turns into a sprint and even a ‘super-sprint’ towards the very end.
“This was a big challenge. Because we’re going into existing venues it’s like 20 simultaneous network refresh projects. In some venues we can switch their technology off but in others we have to coexist. Others needed new fibre because they didn’t have the [core networking] capabilities needed for a global event.”
Only when organisers had complete access to a venue could Aruba install access points, provide media connectivity, and deliver specific functions for television. The amount of time its teams had to do this differed from venue to venue.
“We didn’t get access to some of the venues until very late,” Wilson adds. “Edgbaston had the Twenty20 cricket finals the weekend before the opening ceremony so it was only then that the [tech teams] could get in and do their thing.”
Aruba did not provide public WiFi – there was no need when the venues already offered their own networks – but did provide connectivity to any stakeholder that needed one. Of course, some might bypass this and attempt to use their own wireless equipment but a dedicated spectrum team supported by UK communications regulator Ofcom helped thwart any rogue networks.
The networks themselves were managed by a cloud-based platform that simplified provisioning, identified faults, and monitored for potential cybersecurity threats. In the leadup to the games, the tech teams held a series of technical rehearsals that test potential scenarios such as a service outage or an unplugged cable.
Wilson said there was one user group that demanded priority over anyone else.
“There are only certain things that can stop the sport taking place and one of those is an impact to results, timing and scoring,” he explains.
Wilson needn’t have worried, with the operation going off without a hitch. Indeed, the biggest challenges weren’t technology, it was a shortage of IT specialists familiar with Aruba’s range of equipment – something that is affecting the whole industry.
Wireless access points helped connect athletes, federations, and organisers during the Games (Image credit: Aruba)
A shift to a new multi-sport model
The multi-sport event model isn’t one that exactly lends itself to iterative innovation. They only take place once every few years, often in a new location, and with an entirely different organising committee which mostly starts from scratch. There isn’t a lot of time to test and try new technologies and few, if any, key staff move from one Games to another.
In this environment it is obvious why the focus is on reliability rather than revolution, with organising committees sticking with what works rather than pushing what’s possible. But with such a long planning cycle of seven years or more, the plan is often set in stone several years in advance, which is a long time in the world of technology. Exacerbating this challenge is that, traditionally, each organising committee had the freedom to choose its own technological suppliers, meaning it would be a new relationship every cycle.
At the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, the last to be staged in the UK before Birmingham, the tech team explicitly stated that it wouldn’t take risks with “unproven technology” because they couldn’t afford for things not to work on the night.
The CGF recognises this temptation and starting with Birmingham 2022 has initiated a shift to multi-Games contracts with key vendors. It is also creating common technologies that will be used across multiple Games and has assembled a centralised team of people in technology critical roles to transfer knowledge and ensure greater continuity.
“We also know that most organising committees are very risk averse and take the safe option of copying what was done before because that obviously worked last time,” says Adrian Corcoran, chief information officer at Birmingham 2022.
“This itself can lend to baking in the delivery model mistakes made in the past. So, for mega event franchises like the Commonwealth Games, we are challenging that traditional model and are looking for the opportunity to both de-risk the delivery and also reduce costs to make these events more economically viable, as well as build relationships with fans that persist beyond the single edition of the event. Technology has a huge role to play in that transformation strategy.”
Aruba is one of the key CGF strategic vendors Corcoran mentions and the ability to work across multiple Games was one of the reasons the company was so interested in signing up – especially given its previous involvement with events like golf’s Ryder Cup and in projects like the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
The hope is that this model will not just safeguard the future of the Commonwealth Games itself but provide a framework for other multi-sport events – or those who move from venue to venue – to follow to become more economically sustainable.
The shorter planning cycle should mean newer technologies find their way into the roadmap and there will even be a separate innovation budget to test new technologies in between games and mitigate risk.
Cloud technologies, which provide huge advances in capability and scalability with minimum investments in on-site equipment, are ideal for massive sporting events that only last a couple of days or weeks. Yet Glasgow 2014 considered it to be too much of a risk eight years ago – although its prediction that the technology would be ready for the Gold Cost four years later proved true.
At Birmingham 2022, cloud platforms were integral to the IT operation. Cloud simplifies deployment and minimises the amount of on-premise kit required to power the Games, with multiple points of presence ensuring there is minimal risk of downtime.
Photographers require much higher upload speeds than standard users (Image credit: Aruba)
Legacy of Birmingham 2022
It’s true that cloud helped to minimise the amount of equipment needed to recycle, sell or repurpose, but there was still a significant amount used during the event. Of course, all the fibre laid in the ground will remain in situ, but every piece of equipment used by Aruba will be donated to the local area.
“[The equipment] is going to local public sector projects,” says Wilson. “Healthcare, education, council and sporting [use cases] have all been identified so it’s going to [good causes]. We’ll make sure everything’s working fine but the equipment will only have been used for a few weeks [at the Games].
“Legacy is massively important to the CGF, so the intention is to work with local partners who employ local people. We’ve already had some requests from some organisations who might have a shopping list of what they need and that’ll be evaluated.”
For Aruba and the CGF, attention now turns to four years’ time when the Commonwealth roadshow arrives in the Australian state of Victoria. Whether the debates about the future of the event die down within that time remains to be seen, but it is hoped that the changes made to how the Games are run will encourage more cities and regions to throw their hats in the ring for 2030 and beyond.
These changes aim to address supply-side challenges in host cities but there are ways in which technology can tackle the issue of demand. The digital platforms the CGF creates will generate more meaningful data about who is watching the Commonwealth Games and how they are interacting with the event. These insights can be used to drive audiences and increase commercial revenues – both of which will safeguard the event’s long-term future.
“Through that depth of understanding of the fans – where they are, what sports they’re interested in – we will increase our ability to drive higher revenues from TV rights and commercial sponsorship deals,” says Corcoran. “[This] will ultimately help shape a flexible sport programme for future regions that better fit the Games to that region rather than forcing them to fit with the Games.
“For those fans that actually buy tickets and come to the events we can then start to join up those data sets and really develop our understanding and provide a frictionless and personalised fan experience.
“The biggest opportunities for Commonwealth sport really come from these new technologies.”