This July, more than 10,000 athletes, 21,000 media representatives and 800,000 spectators will descend on the UK for 19 days of competition in which 205 countries will compete in 300 medal events in 26 sports at 34 separate venues. The 2012 Olympics will surely be a significant logistical challenge, yet even more has been going on behind the scenes than practiced logisticians may imagine.
One million pieces of sports equipment and 250,000 items of athletes’ luggage are involved. All must reach the right person in the right place at precisely the right time. UPS, the official logistics and express delivery supporter, expects to have handled 30 million items in total by the end of the event.
The company is providing collection and delivery of everything from documents to heavy freight, as well as freight forwarding, Customs clearance, warehousing, distribution and courier services before, during and after the games. This includes logistics services for venues and competitors’ villages, and “special-event” logistics for the cross-UK torch relay and for the medals ceremonies.
“A number of companies pitched for part of the job — for example, freight forwarding or Customs brokerage — but for LOCOG [the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games], it was all or nothing. From then on, it was a shortlist of two,” says Alan Williams, UPS director, London 2012 sponsorship and operations.
Some of the more colorful freight movements are highlighted on UPS’ website — such as supplying swimming goggles from Greece, boxing gloves from India, canoes from Canada and table tennis balls from Uzbekistan. That’s the straightforward stuff. Other, less-apparent duties include a requirement to deliver and fit specialized flooring. North Greenwich Arena 1 (normally the O2 arena, but renamed for the Olympics to screen out the non-sponsoring mobile phone company’s brand) requires 80,000 square feet of floor for the gymnastics competitions.
The Olympic Delivery Authority is responsible for building the venues, including seating and the base concrete floor. But LOCOG — and, in turn, its chosen logistics service provider — has to outfit each site with electronic timing and scoring equipment, press and back-office facilities, boxing rings, basketball hoops — essentially anything portable.
Changeovers at multi-purpose venues will be specially demanding, Williams says. For example, the company will have just 17 hours after the gymnastics events finish to lay a new floor for the final stages of the basketball events. In another massive, behind-the-scenes task, 10,500 flat-packed bedroom units, including beds and furniture, formedpart of a consignment of 450 40-foot containers that sailed across from China and Malaysia in October. Forty people are unpacking and assembling these on site at the athletes’ villages. The leased units will have to make the return journey after the games for eventual resale or reuse.
Despite UPS’ lengthy experience — it handled small-package deliveries at Atlanta in 1996, the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano and the Sydney games in 2000, while running the complete logistical show in Beijing — the company nevertheless learned a lot during a series of test events over the last 11 months.
“There were areas where we’ve had to change processes and procedures,” Williams says. “We had worked out what space and how many people we needed to unload the basketball flooring, but when we made the delivery, it was pouring with rain. The material is highly susceptible to that, so we realized we needed another level of planning.”
More difficult to foresee were the riots that broke out in London, then more widely across the UK, last August. “We were active with trials in several venues, and it changed what we could and couldn’t do,” Williams says. “We were within 36 hours of the cycling road race [which tours the Surrey countryside, but starts and finishes in The Mall in central London], and we’d already had 100 miles of specialist crowd barriers delivered in.
“We were advised we needed to chain these together, so they couldn’t be picked up and used as missiles,” he continued. “We spent the night cutting two-and-a-half miles of marine chain into short lengths, then we purchased, literally, every padlock in southeast England.”
Three years of planning
LOCOG awarded UPS the logistics contract — a decision that required ratification from the International Olympic Committee — in early 2009. The company had been mulling the pros and cons of bidding for London since the end of the previous games.
“Beijing coincided with our entry into the China market, and we massively increased our market share,” Williams says. “We asked ourselves if we could handle London, and did we want to?” An early priority for London was to secure two warehouses. China had been managed from one massive facility, but UPS was keen to double up on this occasion “for greater resilience,” according to Williams.
In March 2011, the company took over a vacant 330,000-square-foot space in Stevenage, north of London, that was previously occupied by the John Lewis retail group. Two months later, UPS moved into a series of five sheds, totaling 550,000 square feet, owned by the Port of Tilbury.
Tilbury is the closest deep-sea port to the main Olympic site, but the decision on what products are held where is more technology-based than determined by transport mode, Williams explains.
Furniture is going into Stevenage and sports equipment is being held at Tilbury, for example. In total, UPS will be warehousing more than 200,000 items, all inventoried, held until they are required at the various Olympic venues.
UPS will operate six nightly B767 freighters into the UK’s East Midlands Airport and two additional routings into London Stansted.
“LOCOG was concerned that we were going to blacken the skies, but August is not peak season, and in any case, we are flying as little as possible,” Williams says. “The majority of the incoming items will travel by ocean freight or road, which has cost as well as environmental benefits. Only emergency supplies are coming in by air; though, of course, this will increase the closer we get.”
Even expensive broadcasting equipment, which tends to be shipped to major outside broadcast events at the last minute, will already be in Europe because the Olympics follow closely on the heels of the European Football Championship in Poland and Ukraine.
Williams expects to see 400 tonnes of cameras and support equipment at the Olympics. Broadcast companies, and indeed all equipment suppliers to the Olympics, can choose whoever they want to manage their shipments, and many third-party forwarders have picked up business.
Since UPS has to carry out final-mile delivery, however — and also manage post-event breakdown because site access is equally strictly controlled — Williams argues that it makes for a more seamless process to employ the company from end to end.
One area that UPS has been happy to outsource is the movement of horses for the equestrian events. It will not be flying those few animals that have to make intercontinental journeys (most are based in Europe), as grooms must travel with each horse, and standard freighter aircraft are not suitable.
“On every level, horses are a job for a specialist operator, and Peden has been responsible for every Olympics since Seoul and will be responsible for taking the animals to staging posts close to the venue,” Williams says. UPS will again conduct the final part of the journey, but will also carry food, hay and associated items.
In almost all other respects, including the quirky tasks that only really arise when the Olympics are in town, UPS is providing its own in-house solutions. Firearms for the shooting events require a special license, which has been negotiated with London’s Metropolitan Police. Another closely scrutinized responsibility will be the transportation of drug test samples to laboratories. This can be done employing the standard courier network using insulated containers (active refrigeration will not be required). The key element is the chain of custody, Williams says. It’s vital to keep the samples under supervision at all times.
Many things can still go wrong. The fatalistic British public fear that Icelandic volcanoes will erupt again, or the weather will be as bad as it has been for the last three summers, or London’s roads and public transport system will jam up. Anything is possible — just don’t expect competitors’ favorite javelins or sprinters’ medals to go missing. The things Williams and his team can control, they’ve got covered.