True Stories: Going for gold

9 Feb 2004

To participate in the Olympic Games represents one of the highest goals for an athlete, second only to actually winning a medal at the games. This year is no different and Irish athletes are training in earnest for the games that take place in Athens this summer.

The funding of our top athletes is the responsibility of the Irish Sports Council (ISC), which recently received a major funding boost in the form of €5.3m from the Government. The ISC’s other function is to act as a local regulatory authority, ensuring that athletes comply with international anti-doping rules. This involves athletes submitting to random drug tests that can appear intrusive. However, according to Paul McDermott, ISC spokesperson, the athletes accept this as they realise that anti-doping measures are for their own protection.

To help make it easier for athletes to comply with the rules, the council turned to Irish software company Rococo to develop a high-tech substitute for the paper-based ‘whereabouts form’ each athlete must complete. This form details the athlete’s schedule for the coming three months so that anti-doping inspectors know where to go to conduct a test. The ability to keep this information up to date is vital because if an inspector visits a location at a time indicated on the form and the athlete is not present, this can have serious consequences for the athlete.

But that wasn’t all. The ISC also wanted to find a way of allowing athletes to record their training and performance data electronically.

Rococo is a small software house based in Dublin. Founded in February 2000 by three ex-Iona employees, it specialises in mobility solutions using Java and Bluetooth. “We spent our first year carrying out consulting projects,” says Sean O’Sullivan, Rococo’s CEO. “In 2001 we acquired some venture capital and began developing our product suite that we launched in 2002. However, at the end of that year we decided to broaden our focus to develop mobility solutions for Irish small to medium-sized enterprises. Essentially what we do is make it easy for companies to communicate enterprise data to field workers,” he explains.

There were two components to the project. The first was to develop an application that would run on a Palm handheld computer or personal digital assistant and the second to customise some of the backend systems of the ISC’s database. “When designing the application we were always conscious of the fact that it had to be easy to use,” says O’Sullivan. “We, therefore, designed it to make minimum use of handwriting recognition and to use drop down menus, up-down arrows and tick boxes as much as possible.” The application would enable the athlete to enter their schedule. This information would then serve the dual function of generating a ‘whereabouts form’ and a training schedule.Whenever the athlete wishes to update their information, they can place the Palm handheld in a modem cable that is then connected to a telephone line. The application then dials an internet service provider and transmits the updated information to the ISC database. “If the user is a bit more sophisticated we can show them how to use Bluetooth and a mobile phone to do the same thing,” says O’Sullivan. “And if they are even more sophisticated we can show them how to use Wi-Fi.”

In designing the application interface, Rococo was guided by two things: the ISC’s paper-based system and a web interface already available to the athletes via the council’s website. The challenge, says O’Sullivan, was finding a way of accommodating all of the information requirements in the small screen area of the Palm device.

Testing of the new system began in December. “We have made the new system available to 140 athletes, performance directors and coaches around the country,” says Finbarr Kirwan, high performance manager at the ISC. “The people using it would include Sonia O’Sullivan, Sam Lynch and Gillian O’Sullivan. It’s early days yet, but so far it is being very well received.”

Despite the fact that the system is relatively new, O’Sullivan says he is already being asked it is possible to enhance the functionality of the software. “Once you start on projects such as this, people always start coming up with good ideas and ask can you do such and such. That’s why I refer to what we have done up to now as phase one,” he says.

“We want our athletes to spend as much time as possible training and to make the administrative side of things as efficient as possible for them and this will help,” says Kirwan. “Going forward, we would encourage them to continue to use the new system and to see as an opportunity for them to organise themselves. We will see how things go and if we can build in additional functionality we will.”

By David Stewart

Pictured are Sean O’Sullivan, CEO of Rococo with John Treacy, former athlete and CEO of the Irish Sports Council