Beijing Olympics: Going for the Gold with RFID

By Elizabeth Millard  |  Posted 2008-03-03

The scope of the Olympics is staggering, with so many moving parts that it would make even the most experienced event planner start wheezing with anxiety.

"During the Games next year, China will host 280,000 athletes, referees, journalists and other workers from more than 200 countries and regions... About five million overseas tourists and more than 120 million domestic travelers will visit Beijing in 2008 and seven million spectators will watch the games at the venues, according to official statistics," reads a statement from the official Bejing Olympics website.

Not only do the Olympic coordinators need to create game schedules and make sure media coverage is flawless, but they also need to protect against counterfeit tickets, arrange food and beverage transportation, and even ensure the safety of food for athletes by tracking the path from farm to plate.

No problem, according to the RFID vendors who are creating over 12 million RFID-enabled tickets, and systems that protect the production, processing, and transport of food and beverage products to coaches and athletes.

Over the last five years, interest has spiked in the technology, but the Olympics' use of RFID will be somewhat different from other large-scale projects, according to Dan Mullen, president of AIM Global, the worldwide industry association for automatic identification and mobility.

"We've seen RFID in a variety of places where it's found incredible value, but many of those were in closed systems, in a controlled environment, such as toll roads, or access control and security," Mullen says.

The food and beverage tracking will be along these lines, but the ticketing is a broader, bolder step forward. ASK TongFang, a joint venture between French and Chinese companies, manufactured contactless inlays for 12.2 million tickets, including gate readers, software, and service.

The tickets are based on ASK's technology, which uses silver ink-printed antenna and flip chip die attach, according to a recent ASK release. The tags are manufactured at a plant near Beijing. As part of the implementation, nearly 1,000 terminal devices will be installed to verify authenticity.

Anti-counterfeiting printed security features are being provided by China Bank Note, for yet another level of protection.

The effort is an example of the ongoing collaboration that's been happening in the RFID space for years, notes Mike Liard, research director for RFID & Contactless technology at ABI Research. Numerous vendors are needed for the Olympic effort, and Liard anticipates that further alliances will be made after the games are over.

"As the RFID footprint expands, the collaboration has been pronounced," Liard says. "There are many partnerships that are being created by companies in different parts of the world, such as between European vendors and Chinese vendors. The main focus is on creating end-to-end solutions for customers."

At the Olympics, these partnerships will be significant, Liard added, because so many nations are coming together, and the RFID vendors running the ticketing and food transportation logistics are no exception.

"There's a chance here to show how people from different countries can work together," Liard says.

After the last gold medal is slipped around the head of an athlete, RFID in China could continue in a number of ways, Liard notes, and most particularly for its food safety issues.

The country's challenges with food and pharmaceutical safety has been the subject of numerous news reports focused on everything from tainted pet food to contaminated toothpaste to unsafe ingredients for widely-prescribed medications. In July, China executed its former head of the State Food and Drug Administration for taking bribes and showing dereliction of duty.

By implementing a more comprehensive RFID system similar to what's being put in place at the Olympics, the country could have a much better grasp not only on destination and arrival of food, but also how it's been treated along the way.

The RFID system at the Olympics is paired with sensor technology, says Mullen, which records the temperature of the shipment at every moment. For something like a case of sports drinks, this might not be so important, but for highly perishable foods like beef or pork, the information is invaluable, especially since it will be offered to thousands of athletes and coaches, as well as millions of spectators.

"As you can imagine, the amount of food moving into and around the game is pretty immense," says Mullen. "The RFID and sensor system allows someone with a reader to see if a food has gone outside a temperature range, rather than just reading a bar code to determine that it's the correct box. That makes the data more dynamic, and we can see that it could have a lot of impact in the future."

RFID and sensors are already being used in conjunction by some transport companies, mainly with pharmaceuticals that need to be maintained at a certain temperature at all times. But the massive scope of the Olympics could be an example to China and other countries for implementation of government-run systems.

Similarly, success with the RFID-enabled tickets could change how ticketing is done for other large-scale events. The technology will be used for the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, for example, where it could be placed into nearly 70 million tickets, notes Liard.

"At this point, even bar codes can be forged," Liard says. "RFID tickets have been used before in China to defeat counterfeiting, such as for admittance at the Great Wall of China and tennis events, but the scope of this implementation is what makes it unique."

Also worth noting is how RFID can be paired with other uses, he adds, such as combining event admission and parking, or adding in concession stand features that will allow a user to hand over their ticket instead of carrying cash.

"Identification management has been an area where RFID has been used since the early days," says Mullen. "But now, with the ticketing aspect, you're going to see the anti-counterfeiting space really expand."