Burner phones and loaner laptops. Quarantine training centers and a bubble the size of a small city. Departure tests and arrival tests and daily tests. so. many. tests.
Every Olympics presents hurdles, from distance to language to politics. But rarely have those entrusted with transporting the teams, coaches, athletes and gear faced an obstacle course like the one currently testing their organizational skills, resources and patience.
Call these the Logistics Games, because no Olympics in history have been this hard to put on, get to or be at.
The reasons, of course, are painfully clear. The coronavirus pandemic has made byzantine health measures par for the course at any sporting event, and almost every national border. But such rules are even more intense in China, where the government that will host the Winter Olympics that open on Friday has taken a “zero Covid” stance on managing the virus.
Even before the pandemic, China was not exactly an easy place to navigate for international travelers. Add the fact that the competition is starting only six months after the close of the Summer Games in Tokyo, which were postponed by a year near the start of the pandemic, and the entire sports world has a recipe for a splitting migraine.
Planning, then, has become an Olympic sport all its own. US officials, for example, chose to ship containers full of athletic gear, office supplies and even food from last summer’s Summer Games in Tokyo straight to Beijing, rewriting an established playbook, because of the unusually swift turnaround. Administrators in every country have stayed up nights scouring databases of approved testing sites, and coaches have worked to calm athletes trying to hold their nerve.
All of them have done it while simultaneously becoming fluent in PCR tests and QR codes and, in more than a few cases, the precise seating layouts of modern commercial airliners.
The whole situation, said Luc Tardif, the president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, is “a nightmare.”
Take, as one example, the mere act of flying a team to Beijing. At Olympics past — even last summer’s Tokyo Games — participants simply booked a flight on an existing commercial route to the host city.
For these Games, international visitors had to reserve seats at often considerable expense on a limited number of so-called temporary flights — special Olympic routes arranged by the organizing committee through approved travel hubs like Hong Kong, Paris, Singapore and Tokyo because, for dozens of countries, there are no direct flights to Beijing.
For safety and logistical convenience, the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, like many of the larger national Olympic committees, chose to hire its own charter plane instead. The jet, a Delta Airbus SE A350 departed Los Angeles for Beijing on Jan. 27. But for Rick Adams, the US Olympic official whose job includes oversight of operations, arranging the private jet was only the start.
Adams and his team still had to spend hours arranging and rearranging the seating plan for every passenger, coming up with a configuration that would at once position the athletes (their most precious cargo) in the least trafficked areas of the plane and disperse athletes from each sport evenly throughout the cabin to avoid having a large chunk of any one team sidelined by close contact protocols.
“I can tell you that I am very familiar with the fuselage of a large Delta jet,” Adams said.
Concurrently, other USOPC staff members were working with individual sports federations to collect American athletes from the various corners of the world where they were competing and training and shepherd them safely to Los Angeles several days before the flight. Only then did they navigate another logistical challenge: All people entering China for the Olympics are required to produce two negative PCR tests from a small list of approved laboratories within 96 hours of departure.
Obstacles like this felt particularly profound in ice hockey, whose athlete pool was thrown into chaos in December when the NHL announced its players would not be playing in Beijing.
After refilling their rosters with replacement players and tutoring the newfound Olympians on the rigorous protocols for Beijing, international hockey officials scrambled to arrange coronavirus tests from the specific (but limited) list of testing sites that Chinese authorities had approved to carry out screenings.
“When you’ve got a Latvian player playing in Switzerland, Swiss playing in Sweden, you can imagine,” Tardif said, noting that some players were forced to travel more than 200 miles to reach an approved testing center.
And those were just the health concerns. Fears of surveillance and cybercrime in China pushed many national teams to create digital safety plans for their delegations. Several, including Britain, the Netherlands and the United States, eventually urged their athletes to procure rental phones and computers before the Games, and leave their personal devices — their lifelines to friends and family while on the road — at home.
“Like computers, the data and applications on cellphones are subject to malicious intrusion, infection and data compromise,” read a recent advisory the USOPC sent to its athletes.
It concluded, “Despite any and all safeguards that are put in place to protect the systems and data that are brought to China, it should be assumed that all data and communications in China can be monitored, compromised or blocked.”
The unenviable task of organizing all of these things – the travel, the testing, the devices and whatever else – has fallen to a group of unfortunate souls in each delegation tasked with one of the Games’ most punishing job titles: Covid liaison officer. There is one for every nation, news organization, sponsor and any other delegation traveling to the Games. These people have invariably devoted hundreds of hours to understanding the complex rules and often rapidly evolving procedures created for these Olympics.
The responsibility for Slovakia’s teams, for instance, fell to Zuzana Tomcikova, who was a goalie for the country’s women’s ice hockey team at the Vancouver Games in 2010. She has been overseeing the current teams’ travel and testing arrangements, cycling endlessly through the thicket of paperwork and Excel spreadsheets to keep everything organized—or as close to organized as possible.
Getting everyone to the Games smoothly, she admitted, will feel like a minor miracle.
“Once they have all the athletes in China,” Tomcikova said, “I think I’m going to be the happiest.”
But things are no more simple on the ground in Beijing. The centerpiece of the Olympic Covid protocol is a so-called closed loop — a bubble environment none of the participants can leave at any point during their stay. The closed loop consists of more than a dozen competitive venues, three media centers, three athletes’ villages and dozens of hotels, each of them sealed off from the public, protected by the police and linked by a private transportation network created for the Games.
Other sporting events – like ones put on by the NBA and the Champions League – have attempted bubbles. But nothing on this scale.
At the Tokyo Olympics, for example, workers, volunteers and journalists based in Tokyo were allowed to return to their homes when their days were done. And international visitors, confined mostly to their hotels at first, were allowed to roam about the city after a two-week quasi-quarantine period.
In Beijing, on the other hand, everyone – the athletes; the officials; the journalists; the tens of thousands of cooks, cleaners and volunteers who in some ways are the logistical lifeblood of the Games — will work and reside in the bubble. All will be tested daily for Covid.
Beijing organizers have not provided exact numbers of the population inside the closed-loop system, but the official tally of daily tests administered early last week, when only a small number of international visitors had arrived, offered an idea of how many staff members will be involved: 38,441 tests on Sunday, 41,810 on Monday.
With “somewhere north of 30,000” participants expected from abroad, according to Pierre Ducrey, the operations director for the IOC, the testing endeavors will soon become roughly equivalent to administering throat swabs to the entire population of a small city—say, Santa Fe, NM – every single day for a month.
Ducrey knows this better than most. He has been in the bubble since early January.
“Things get much more complicated,” he said, “in a pandemic environment.”
Alan Blinder and Tariq Panja contributed reporting.