The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Russia – The IT Perspective

Ole Bratz, Head of IT at epa, takes us with him on a trip to Sochi. After you’ve seen the Olympics from all kinds of angles, this is a unique experience, you probably haven’t heard of yet.

The coverage of Olympic Games is challenging. The planning and preparations for the photo coverage of this major sports event started already 28 months ago, and included several visits to Sochi.
In addition to a dedicated team of professional photographers and editors, huge efforts have been made by administrative and IT teams for organizing transportation, accommodation and last but not least the technical set up. The real operation started when the freight consisting of several flight cases had been picked up in the first week of January to make its way to Sochi. That date marked the point of no return. Anything that’s missing, configured wrongly or not properly tested – too late. Luckily, the transport by truck from Frankfurt through several countries, borders and customs went well, and when epa’s IT colleagues Joerg Reuter and Helmut Emelius arrived in Sochi on January 17, all servers, computers, network equipment and several kilometers of network cable arrived in good shape and were taken into epa’s private office space in the Main Press Center. Now the advance party started organizing accommodation for the team, in this case it meant visiting construction sites, at least in the mountain area in Krasnaya Polyna, but conditions were not much better in the media accommodation at the coastal cluster in Sochi Adler. Quite on the contrary, they were terrible and only got better a few days before the opening of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Joerg Reuter, who is heading epa’s IT operations at all major sports events, successfully met all major challenges for the benefit of the entire epa team.

One important lesson taught by the Russians: Everything is ready, no problem! (Regardless the facts)

In the week before Carsten Riedel and I arrived in Sochi, Joerg and Helmut had already set up the whole temporary editorial office with workstations, servers and network. And they cabled many photo positions in the Sochi Olympic Park such as the Iceberg Skating Place, the Adler Arena, the Bolshoy Ice Dome, the Shayba Arena, the Ice Cube Curling Center and the Medals Plaza.

Helmut on the catwalk in the Bolshoy arena at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games

Helmut fixing network cables for remote cameras on the catwalk in the Bolshoy arena. epa / Joerg Reuter

6000 meters of yellow CAT5 cable

The task was to connect every single of the 150 photo positions to the VLAN network which takes the photographers’ images with 100 Mbit/s speed from his or her camera to the editorial desk in the main Press Center. During the second week, after editors Gernot Hensel and Herbert Maier had also arrived, the mission headed towards accomplishment by pulling epa’s yellow network cables to all photo positions in the mountain cluster in the Laura Cross-Country Ski and the Biathlon Center, the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center, the Russki Gorki Jumping Center, the Sanki Sliding Center and the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. This became the real challenge: In addition to the actual cabling of approximately 6000 meters of yellow CAT5 cable, some in closed stadiums but mostly in the snow at downhill tracks, halfpipe, moguls, ski jump, biathlon and sliding, other obstacles like climbing or massive cable lengths of 100 meters came into play.

Joerg and Carsten pulling network cables at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games

Joerg and Carsten pulling network cables for direct image transmission from the photo cameras. epa / Matt Campbell

Carsten, Joerg, Gernot and Herbert at the  Laura Cross-Country, Ski and Biathlon center at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games

Carsten, Joerg, Gernot and Herbert at the Laura Cross-Country, Ski and Biathlon center at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games. epa / Helmut Emelius

The Russian authorities prohibited all kind of encryption and VPN

Luckily, the timing and scheduling with photo and venue managers and our fellow agencies went rather smoothly due to the fact that we had already established a very friendly relationship with them. Security regulations were the main time consuming issue. By the way, so was our IT security. The Russian authorities prohibited all kind of encryption and VPN. Whenever we had to bring a vehicle with tools and technical equipment into an Olympic venue we were stopped at a vehicle checkpoint, although each technician had a special sticker showing a screwdriver on his accreditation pass, allowing him to carry tools, even knives. All passengers  had to step out and walk through a separate mag and bag check, the car and its contents were diligently searched by police or military personnel. The Russians – smart as they are – had them all dressed in friendly looking purple Sochi 2014 uniforms. Then back in the car, after all windows, doors and hoods had been sealed with stickers, off to the next checkpoint where all seals were checked to make sure we did not open a window or anything. Those procedures felt like they took forever. When we finally reached the venue the only problems to overcome were iced cable paths, frozen pipes, snowbound network cabinets and everything else related to IT hardware and people having to cope with the snow and the cold.

Snowbound cabinet at Extreme Park in Rosa Khutor at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games

Technicians wiring network cables to a snowbound network cabinet at Extreme Park in Rosa Khutor. epa/ Ole Bratz

The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games kick off

6 days before the Opening Ceremony, the main photo and editorial team from all over the world arrived. Now everything became really busy because as a technician you are the single point of contact for everyone. But these few days of gathering with our friends and lovely colleagues before the real show started were the most enjoyable. They were the magic and epic moments that make the european pressphoto agency family very special.
Before the official start of the games, last modifications in the picture workflow were done, lines checked, configurations tested, remote support from the colleagues at home installed and connectivity fine-tuned. Now we were ready for the show to begin…
The master mind behind all epa sports coverage is Gernot Hensel, Deputy Editor-in-Chief and Head of the Sports Desk, editing wizard, all-round sports expert and well experienced leader of those operations. He is truly in his element when it’s show time and the going gets tough. The same can be said about all colleagues whether behind lenses or in front of computer screens, producing thousands of exciting images from the competitions, even special pictures by request for our partners and clients. Some colleagues standing in the cold next to an alpine track for a whole day and others rushing from one event to the next, from early to late, all without a break or a day off. The epa team is a real dream team, producing an excellent photo coverage for its customers all over the world.
What is left for the IT is the daily duty, some support, some fixing or replacement of a cut or frozen network cable. No more challenge until the show ends with the Closing Ceremony. Then everybody will be off back home, only the rear guard will roll back the operation and bring everything back home.
And an important Russian word: “Poyekhali”, as Yuri Gagarin said on his trip into the orbit. It is used when you raise the vodka glass as well.

Do you like this story? Follow us on Facebook to stay in touch for more insightful stories from behind the scenes.