When people around the world tune in to the Pyeongchang Olympics this February, they will be witnessing not just a triumph of athleticism, but logistics. Every two years, a new city attempts to do the seemingly impossible in hosting the Olympics: building infrastructure, transporting tons of goods, and navigating inevitable crises. As we prepare for the 2018 Olympics, it’s both fascinating and educational to look at the great logistical successes (and failures) of Olympics past, and the hurdles faced by this year’s organizers.
Every Olympics faces its own set of challenges. Summer Olympics are much larger, with double the number of sports, and bigger crowds and delegations. Winter Olympics, on the other hand, tend to be more geographically isolated, in mountainous locations that allow for alpine events. This usually necessitates the building of a great deal of costly infrastructure. Both the 2014 Sochi Games and this year’s Winter Olympics have forced their host countries to build new rail lines to quickly shuttle athletes and attendees to events, and the Pyeongchang Games have necessitated the building of roads and facilities on a formerly protected Korean mountainside. Once the infrastructure is in place, massive amounts of equipment to support athletes, tourists and game operations travel from all over the world, where they are inventoried, stored, and then delivered to venues and athletes precisely when needed. To accomplish this, many host nations have eased customs regulations and duties for Olympics-related cargo. For the 2016 Rio Games, Brazil simplified documentation and gave border tax exemption in order to speed up its infamously slow customs process, prompting many international freight forwarders to wonder why nations couldn’t treat ordinary business with the urgency of massive sporting events.
Specialized sporting equipment must be in perfect condition for competition, which means having total confidence that it is being treated properly during transportation, unloading, and storage. Any failure in this chain of custody can be catastrophic. (Just ask Tonya Harding’s shoelace.) The Winter Olympics may be slightly easier in this regard, since those organizers are spared the massive expense of transporting and housing stables of thoroughbred horses. Aside from the sporting equipment, every athlete and trainer in the Olympic Village must be provided with beds, Olympic-branded gear, food and medical support. For the 2004 Athens Olympics, “the dining hall took in shipments of 460,000 lbs. of raw ingredients every single day,” according to Freightwaves.
As with any logistical undertaking, staging the Olympics is largely a matter of anticipating crises and having processes in place to respond to them. The winter Olympics can be particularly challenging in this regard, since so many events are weather-dependent. To prepare for possible warm weather, organizers of the Sochi Olympics stored 450,000 tons of snow in specialized warehouses, the largest such undertaking of its kind in history. Meteorologists are confident that the Pyeongchang Olympics will be, if anything, too cold. At the event’s primary stadium, which was constructed without a roof to save money, six people developed hypothermia at a recent event. To combat this, according to Accuweather “Officials in South Korea have arranged to provide each spectator at the Olympics ceremonies with a small blanket, raincoats and heating pads.” Of course, weather concerns are a trifling matter when compared to the international tensions that are a unique feature of the Olympics. This year, security concerns will be at the forefront of the organizers’ minds, especially with the last-minute addition of a North Korean delegation. Fears are rampant that members of this delegation might use the opportunity to defect to the South, which would be, at the very least, embarrassing for all parties.
In recent years, concerns over the cost and environmental impact of the Olympics have led many to question the wisdom of constructing new parks in new locations every two years. It’s certainly true that for some nations, hosting the Olympics has been nothing short of a budgetary disaster. In fact, the only site to turn a profit in the last century has been Los Angeles, which already had much of the needed infrastructure at its disposal, and was already a tourist hub. Meanwhile, the 2014 Sochi Games were the most expensive on record, largely because of the perennial logistical issues of inefficiency and corruption. But despite the cost, the Olympics give the world something valuable in the form of inspiration and cohesiveness. This is true not just for the athletes’ performance or the spectacle of nations putting aside their differences in the name of friendly competition. For logistics management professionals, the Olympics prove that infrastructure projects can be built, that red tape can be cut when needed, and that the right planning can accomplish something spectacular on the world’s largest stage.