Overall, the official website for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City scores poorly on compliance with established usability guidelines:
The site map deserves silver: It is very rare to see websites score in the 80s for any set of usability guidelines. The perfect website might score 90%, because specific websites always have valid reasons for deviating from a few of the established guidelines. Thus, the Olympics site map has room for about 10% improvement before it gets the gold.
International outreach is poor, despite the international nature of the Olympics. A plus for the easy link from the homepage to French content, but a big minus for the lame nature of this content (and the fact that the navigation stays in English even when you ask for French). The site scores 25% compliance with the 19 guidelines for supporting international users.
Homepage Improved during Games
After WIRED published a critique of the Olympics homepage, the site fixed several of its usability problems. Given that the Games were already in full swing, it's not feasible to have expected a full redesign. But, as this case shows, a design tweak is a great way to fix as much as you can. For example, photos are now cropped much more closely than the overly-detailed images used before the tweak.
After the tweak, the homepage scores 70%, putting it into bronze medal territory (compared with a pre-tweak score of 66%).
Even though a relatively high score for homepage usability is laudable, it is striking how much lower the usability scores get once we get down and dirty with task-oriented parts of the site. This is a common mistake: Prestige-oriented design projects tend to lavish attention on the homepage, while neglecting the rest of the site.
Example: Even though the site has very good maps and seating charts, it is unnecessarily hard to find the venue you need. Each sport has a subsite with a main page for specific information. So far, so good. The sport's main page even has a prominent link to "venues," which is clearly the one to click if you need directions.
Unfortunately, clicking the venue link from, say, the ski jumping page, doesn't take you to a page for the ski jumping venue. Instead, you get a general map of the area, and you have to guess which venue is hosting the jumpers.
Low specificity in linking is one of the major causes of poor usability on the Web today. Come on, link directly from ski jumping to the hill.
Official Site or Not?
Just before the Games opened, a Google search for "winter olympics" looked like this:
Salt Lake 2002
www.saltlake2002.com/ - 1k - 06 Feb 2002 - Cached - Similar pages
INTERNATIONAL OLYMPIC COMMITTEE - PASSION - THE OLYMPIC ...
Français, WWW.MUSEUM.OLYMPIC.ORG, OLYMPIC MUSEUM
LAUSANNE The symbol of the union of sport ...
Description: Take a tour and see pictures of past olympics , hear about the Olympic symbols, learn about the ceremonies...
Category: Kids and Teens > Sports and Hobbies > Olympics
www.museum.olympic.org/ - 7k - 06 Feb 2002 - Cached - Similar pages
[... three links skipped ...]
THE OFFICIAL WEBSITE OF THE OLYMPIC MOVEMENT
... Salt Lake City 2002 XIX Olympic Winter Games From 8 to 24 February, feel the emotion
of the first Olympic Games of the New Millennium in the heart of the ...
Description: [Official site] A variety of information involving the candidate and host cities, events, IOC policies,...
Category: Sports > Events > Olympics
www.olympic.org/ - 22k - 06 Feb 2002 - Cached - Similar pages
Having multiple sites is a sure way to confuse users. When it's unavoidable, you must make microcontent, like page titles and search engine descriptions, very clear about each site's purpose.
Not Scored: Accessibility and PR
I didn't score the Olympics site for compliance with the 75 guidelines for improving usability for users with disabilities. It has already been documented elsewhere that the site violates many of the basic guidelines for technical accessibility, and it's a truism that if users can't even get in, they can't use the site either.
One obvious issue that reduces usability for people with low vision: The site uses a fixed font size, so you cannot make the text bigger or smaller to fit your screen readability preference.
The cascading menus that blink onto the screen when you move your mouse around are annoying and difficult to use for all users; they will cause severe difficulties for anybody with motor skills impairments.
Because the Olympics are a major news event, I was looking forward to seeing how well the site would fare with the 32 guidelines for the PR areas of websites. However, the official site doesn't have any press or PR links, so I guess I should score it at 0% . I have no doubt that there is a big PR effort to support onsite media representatives, but what about smaller newspapers or specialized newsletters that cannot afford to send a reporter to Salt Lake City? The Web allows for much broader outreach than traditional media, and it's particularly good at supporting special interests -- like fans of the French curling team.
Better Luck in Athens
Even though the Salt Lake City site won silver for its site map and bronze for its tweaked homepage, the over-all usability of the site is far from medal territory. Let's hope that Greek web designers take this lesson to heart and produce a better site for the 2004 games in Athens.
Update added March 9, 2002:
After the 2002 Winter Olympics closed, the www.saltlake2002.com site has been taken over by the 2002 Paralympics. As far as I can tell, all of the information on the original site has vanished. This is linkrot on a massive scale - one could call it "siterot."
One could argue that it's nice of the Olympics to donate the status of their website to a good cause: giving the Paralympics the benefit of all the incoming links to the Olympics site (such as the one from this article and its licensed translations) as well as the associated high ranking in search engines and such. But ultimately it is misleading if a website builds up status from serving one goal and then completely changes to doing something else (if somewhat related, in this case).
Even though I was critical of many aspects of the design of the original Winter Olympics site, it did contain much good content about the games. Gone forever? Actually, I found a copy at www.olympics.com, but that domain name sounds much like it will be taken over by the next Olympics pretty soon. Hopefully they will move the old content into an appropriate archive.
See also analysis of the official site for the London 2012 Olympic Games.