Technology provides skiers with the joy of text

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When the Vasaloppet, the world’s largest cross-county ski race, is run next month through 90km of snowy Swedish forest between Sälen and Mora, accompanying the swooshing of skis will be the unmistakable sound of a stream of incoming SMS messages as the 15,000 competitors check on their progress.

Back in the early 1970’s Vasaloppet racers pulled out sweat-soaked punch cards from jackets and waited in lines to have their times recorded. Then they waited two days to read the results in the local paper. In the late 1990’s they fumbled with WAP connections to get results. Now thanks to passive data chips and their mobile phones, skiers get SMS updates as they pass each intermediate station, telling them where they are in the field and when they can expect to finish.

“Less than 10 seconds after they pass through a checkpoint the skier gets a message telling them their time between checkpoints, where they are in the race, and, if they want to know, how their friends are doing,” says Klas Gronqvist, project manager for the race’s long-time technology sponsor IBM. “That means they can ski faster if they need to catch up”.

A passive electronic tag, a so-called “champion chip”, worn by each skier, is detected by an antenna buried at each checkpoint, and the data is transmitted via a GPRS wireless network. At forest sites such as Smågan, 10km from the finish where there is no electricity, a diesel generator powers the transmissions to race headquarters where the realtime results are updated to the website and SMS texts are sent to everyone registered.

“We give elapsed and estimated times to the families so they have a chance to get the kids dressed to go out into the cold and meet mum or dad at the finish,” says Mr Gronqvist.

“Out of 15,000 skiers, there are maybe 300 elite skiers, and probably an additional 50 to 100 are there competing for the prize money, but every single skier in the race will have registered for the updates,” says Mr Gronqvist.

Vasaloppet is second only to the Nobel prize as a media event in Sweden and 1.9m people watch the race on TV, but once public television has finished coverage of the elite skiers, fans turn to the web and follow the progress of friends. “In 2005 we had 25m visitors just on Sunday,” says Mats Budh, chief executive of Vasaloppet. “Compared with other sporting event websites, only the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney attracted more visitors.”

While the organisers handled close to a terabyte of data in 2005 and expect to deal with 25 per cent more this year, internet audiences for sports events are notoriously difficult to predict, so sports IT projects tend to be massively over-engineered to absorb the loads. Using this seemingly wasteful idle capacity sensitively is also a part of this year’s Vasaloppet project. Because the festival lasts only one week, and the big race just one day, the organisers are donating much of this year’s Vasaloppet computing infrastructure to the World Community Grid, during the two months or so it will be operational.

“Some of what we learned in previous Vasaloppets is used in Swedish internet banking – at a very early stage we were able to host 500,000 retail banking customers,” says Mr Gronqvist. ”Now we are thinking of ways to participate in the grid, and showing social responsibility while we tweak the partitioning and dynamics of the system, seeing how fast it reacts to sharing workloads.”

Meaning Swedish ex-patriot skiers as far afield as Macao and Zimbabwe will still be able to get their taste of Swedish winter.

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