LONDON — “Seeing the carnage, my heart sank,” said javelin thrower Kara Patterson.
She was standing in baggage claim at the San Jose International Airport, staring at the jagged ends of two nearly demolished PVC pipes. Headed to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Patterson had packed her most precious cargo in those pipes, her favorite pair of javelins. She peered inside the pipes to assess the damage.
To her astonishment, the javelins were unscathed. With new PVC pipes from a nearby Home Depot, she continued to Beijing without further incident, just questions from airline workers and curious stares.
“I’ve been traveling with javelins for 10 years, since high school,” said Patterson, a two-time Olympian and American record-holder in her event. “I understand the reservations people have about checking an implement. I try to approach it with a smile, to let them know that I know this is weird and that I’ve been here before. I promise they’ll fit on the plane. But you always have to be ready for anything and just be OK with surprises.”
That’s a common mind-set for athletes traveling to the London Games with javelins, rifles, archery bows, horses, bicycles, sailboats, fencing swords, vaulting poles, canoes, rowing shells, and pistols. On the busiest, pre-Olympic days at Heathrow Airport, organizers expect 15 percent of all baggage to be oversized packages filled with sports equipment, including a total of about 1,000 guns. So, participants with hard-to-pack equipment know travel nightmares sometimes precede Olympic triumphs.
Rifles get lost in transit. Customs officials balk at letting pistols through. Transportation Security Administration agents think archery bow strings look like a detonator cord. Horses find trouble without passports in perfect order.
The US delegation includes 530 athletes with all kinds of equipment requiring special accommodation, whether it’s gun permits for rifles or shipping containers for sailboats or grooms and veterinarians for horse flights. During the last several weeks, the USOC and national sports governing bodies have worked around the clock to ensure US athletes and their equipment arrive ready for competition. Still, even broken down sport by sport, the organizational effort is mind-boggling.
“It’s quite a puzzle,” said US sailing head coach and high performance director Kenneth Andreasen of a packing process in which sailors strap their boats into 40-foot containers for transport via cargo ship. “It’s something you have to practice. You can’t just do it. New team members are very overwhelmed the first time. We can pack a container in three or four hours, but it’s full work. We’re completely drenched with sweat when it’s done.”
Fellow travelers typically ask track cyclist Sarah Hammer, “What’s in the box?” Rather than explain why she checks large boxes of bikes and wheels when flying, she says, “Oh, I just pack heavy.” How heavy? Hammer flies to major international competitions such as the Olympics with at least two bikes, one box of race wheels, one suitcase, and one carry-on. And she carries on her handlebars, bike saddle, and pedals because the parts are too important to performance, too customized to replace in the event of lost luggage.
At the Olympics, where the difference between winning a medal and going home empty-handed can be millimeters or fractions of a second, competition-tested, individually-calibrated equipment is treasured.
“I’ve had many times where the bikes don’t come in and you can’t figure out where they’re at,” said Hammer, a four-time world champion. “That’s why we pack spare bikes. At least one will get there. Sometimes you have to use somebody else’s bike for the training leading up to a competition because your bike might not be showing up until a day prior. That’s just part of it. Let’s just say, it’s very enjoyable to travel for pleasure when we don’t have to bring our bikes.”
Olympians accustomed to international travel pack for worst-case scenarios. Archer Brady Ellison never boards a plane without his finger tab, a leather patch that protects a competitor’s fingers from the bowstring. Ellison called it “the most personal piece of equipment” archers have. In a desperate situation, he can borrow a bow, but he needs the perfect fit to compete well.
But keeping finger tabs close doesn’t prevent check-in issues for archers and other athletes who compete with what most people consider weaponry. Between TSA agents trying on fencing masks to customs agents trying to block entry on occasion, members of the archery, shooting, fencing and modern pentathlon teams almost always face added scrutiny.
“I understand the TSA is there to protect us and I appreciate that,” said Ellison, the world’s No. 1-ranked archer in men’s recurve. “But I don’t want the TSA to start messing with my bow case every time I get on a plane. Our bow cases are packed in a very specific way. A lot of times we’ll come with broken arrows or sight pins that were not put back where they were and got broken because of that.”
And that can be costly in more ways than one. Archers travel with around $10,000 worth of equipment. The cost of a sabre fencing sword is about $200, a vaulting pole roughly $750, a track bike as much as $3,000, a rifle as much as $5,000 without customization, a rowing shell for an eight as much as $50,000, a sailboat as much as $60,000.
While Olympians deal with the difficulty of transporting valuable individual equipment on commercial planes, the USOC and national sports governing bodies handle larger shipments of everything from nutritional products to clothing to spare parts to office supplies.
For almost two years, USA Cycling operations manager Greg Cross has been staying on top of London logistics for the team’s 24 cyclists and their roughly 50 bikes. Cross regularly communicates with staff at the US development rider house in Belgium, which will send most of the spare equipment the team needs by truck. Two weeks ago, he sent 32 boxes of competition clothing via air cargo to London.
“We’re just trying to pack everything we can from here, so we don’t have to look for it once we get there,” said Cross, who’s easy to spot at airports with a 6-foot tall stack of boxes and duffel bags on his luggage cart. “The key to everything is preparation and organization. So, everything is thought out and you don’t have to worry about anything last-minute.”
Horses out of the barn
Nothing compares to the logistics, cost, and care required when transporting Olympic horses worth as much as several million dollars. The animals fly in special containers outfitted with jet stalls roughly the size of trailers used for road transport. To fly from Newark Airport to Stansted Airport for the Games, it cost about $10,000 per horse for a double, a two-horse container considered business class. One horse per container is first class. Three horses is economy class. The more room a horse has, the more likely the animal will travel well and arrive rested.
The US team’s horses flew two per container on FedEx cargo planes, escorted by professional flying groom Richard Picken. It’s his job to handle restless horses, calm them enough that the on-flight veterinarian can administer medication, if needed.
“When a 500-pound horse decides it doesn’t want to be in the stall anymore, it’s very dangerous,” said Picken. “The horse has its own brain. It’s quite capable of deciding it doesn’t want to be in there anymore. Or, you can have a horse that gets ill. If one goes crazy, it’s my job to go in and sort it out. We know how to deal with the horses and make it safe for the vet to go in.”
Picken flew with Ann Romney’s horse, Rafalca, to London. And he reports that Rafalca was “very well behaved” and “not a problem at all.”
In addition to personal attention, horse travel involves considerable paperwork, quarantines and special considerations if flights face delays. On the way to the Beijing Olympics, US horses caught a later flight to Hong Kong when bad weather threatened to divert their flight to Tapei, where US horses wouldn’t have the necessary health papers to deplane. In addition to health papers that record vaccinations, horses have passports with detailed visual descriptions and bloodline documentation. Before competitions, officials match each horse with their passports.
“If they’re too nervous or not a good traveler, that’s a problem,” said two-time US team jumping gold medalist Beezie Madden. “Usually, the horses that are good at the sport, the ones that can go before a huge crowd, are pretty good about the traveling, too. It all kind of goes together with their temperament and their mind.”
Upon arrival, Picken said he feels a “sense of satisfaction” more than anything else. Flying horses is a pressure-packed job, especially with so much time and money invested.
“You have to get them there in one piece,” said Picken. “If something happens and the horse doesn’t get there in one piece, then it causes a lot of problems for the team.”
Other athletes wish they had equipment escorts to make competing around the world easier. Women’s single sculler Gevvie Stone of Newton keeps a shell in Europe because as her father and coach Gregg said, transporting one by plane “is a prohibitively expensive and risky move.” The US sailing team sends boats far in advance so, in the event of damage, competitors can file insurance claims and make repairs. “It’s like if you had a car accident,” said Andreasen. The US cycling team packs along enough spare parts and tools to make even a large bike shop jealous.
And at a big event like the Olympics, between the USOC, national governing bodies and sponsors, there are plenty of people ready to help with travel-related emergencies for every sport.
Many members of the shooting, fencing, archery, and modern pentathlon teams tell stories of problems before major international competitions with late-arriving, occasionally disappearing, equipment.
US shooting team member Kim Rhode, who will compete in her fifth Olympics in London, has seen and experienced just about all an athlete can in her sport. She said, “It’s kind of sickening when you get there and the gun isn’t there.” And with all the regulations regarding gun travel, a late gun means extra hassle either tracking yours down or borrowing someone else’s.
“I’ve been at different competitions where the gun hasn’t arrived or arrived when the match was over,” said Rhode, who’s medaled in four straight Olympics. “You pick up someone else’s, one of your competitors. It’s definitely more of a challenge when that happens because the gun isn’t made for you, which is 90 percent of it. But the reality is, at least you have something.”
On the trip home, every athlete hopes to be packing something extra. Thankfully, medals fit easily into carry-ons.