The hurdles of Olympic logistics

Five days in and the 2016 Rio Olympics have already been receiving a lot of criticism from both the media, as well as from those taking part. In fact, this year’s games seem to have been under intense scrutiny since the 2012 London Olympics came to a close.

But with all this time to prepare, have the organisers managed to pull it off?

In what could be described so far as ‘the rubbish Olympics’ as a result of the incredible amounts of waste and pollution that have been gathering in Brazil’s Olympic waterways (and also gathering a lot of unwanted media coverage), there have been a few hiccups that have caught the attention of a global audience.

From health advisories being put out before the event even began warning of the risks to visitors from contracting the Zika virus, to alerting those taking part in open water events about the adverse health effects of ingesting polluted seawater, competitors being capsized by old sofas floating in the sea, and swimming pools turning green, it’s fair to say that there has so far been a fairly comprehensive list of mishaps and failures.

At the same time, on the surface everything seems to be where it is supposed to be. Looking past some of the issues, such as the incomplete construction at key event locations such as the athletes’ village, or the women’s beach volleyball stadium, the fact that the games weren’t cancelled must be testament to the fact that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) deems Brazil and the authorities in Rio ready enough to host them.

As for those competing, with the long list of #RioProblems trending on Twitter as of late, do the worlds most gifted athletes appreciate the sheer scale of the logistical operation that is behind hosting an international event such as the Olympics?

This year’s summer games will involve 206 countries taking part, and more than 11,000 athletes being flown in to partake in their respective events, not to mention members of international media in attendance (supposedly numbering at more than 30,000).

For the athletes alone, a fleet of 21 jumbo jets would be required. On top of this, the games will involve around 30m items, most of which have been sent via cargo ship in approximately 6,000 containers. This equates to 2% of the Port of Rio de Janeiro’s total 2015 TEU volumes (based on data from cepal.org). Or, imagine if you will, the world’s largest container ship, the CSCL Globe, with a total maximum capacity of 19,100 TEUs. Now imagine this ship almost 1/3 full with only Olympic gear. Considering that the games only last for 17 days, it is quite an impressive amount of cargo.

It works out at just over half a container for EACH athlete. Now, for an event such as Olympic sailing, or kayaking, wherein a boat, masts, oars, life jackets, etc. need to be shipped, allocating half a container seems about right. Bolloré Logistics have actually undertaken this task on behalf of the Hungarian Canoe Federation – albeit through the utilisation of air freight (thus increasing the space in containers even more).

But for something like badminton, where (I’m assuming) the nets and court are already in place in Brazil, or synchronised swimming, where (again, I’m assuming), all they seem to need are a costume, goggles, and a swimming cap (and obviously their teammates – unless solo synchronised swimming is a thing), it starts to put the space requirements into perspective.

It is probably safe to say therefore that the container space not being used by the Hungarian canoeing team or the synchronised swimmers, is actually being taken up by the sheer volume of events equipment and apparatus that is required to allow each competition to take place. Add onto this food and drinking water for the athletes for the duration of their stay, mattresses (not the sort floating in Rio’s waterways), security barriers, additional seating areas, diesel generators, etc., you can see why the Olympics involves such large volumes of cargo.

As the official logistics partner for the Austrian, Norwegian, Portugese, and Swiss Olympic teams, DB Schenker has stated that it alone has sent 1,030 TEUs to the host city, and that it will have shipped almost 1.3m separate items just to equip the Olympic village. The company added that “By the end of June [it] had transported approximately 940 TEUs containing furniture, most of which was sourced in Asia, to the Olympic Village. Material for the opening and closing ceremonies in the Maracana Stadium was delivered from Italy, Germany, Canada, and Australia.”

Several specialist logistics providers will also have been working hard to ensure their cargos have all made it to Rio on time. For example, specialist medical logistics and courier services will have been required for the transportation of items such as the athlete’s blood samples needed for doping tests. Equally, those forwarding firearms for Olympic shooting events will have had to ensure that their cargos clear customs. Both involving stringent security procedures.

Similarly, this week has seen the arrival of more than 300 competition horses to Rio. As a result, Emirates SkyCargo has been one of the companies to provide specialised logistics services to transport horses on its Boeing 777 freighters. Included in the flight are 11 grooms and 1 veterinarian on board (source: Bloomberg).

For those of us that work in the industry and are aware of just how vast it is, it is not surprising when you realise that there isn’t really any angle you can look at the event in which logistics ISN’T a factor. Whether or not those taking part in the competition, or the millions of people around the world spectating will ever be aware of this at any point is another matter though.

I know from my own experience, when I worked at the London 2012 Olympics and had to be up at 4am to get on a bus to head to south west London, I certainly wouldn’t have stopped to consider the logistical implications of what I was taking part in. At the time, I wasn’t too happy about being up so early, and looking back on it, I’m glad I was only experiencing the side of logistics that involved moving people to the event, wherein I was one of those people and I could sleep on the coach. In hindsight, I’m actually quite glad that I wasn’t involved in the logistical side of transporting and then setting up 27.3 miles of crowd control barriers in the early hours throughout residential areas for the men’s cycling time trial (Team GB got the gold AND bronze in the event that year by the way).

The end of the ceremony will determine whether or not Brazil has managed to achieve a podium finish or a wooden spoon in terms of its execution, and even after the last competitor has crossed the finish line, there is still the logistical ‘more than 100 metre hurdle’ of packing everything up and sending it back to where it came from, thus beginning the reverse logistics race (an event tipped to feature in the 2020 games).

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