SPORTS

PACKING UP FOR BEIJING

KEN MACQUEEN July 28 2008
SPORTS

PACKING UP FOR BEIJING

KEN MACQUEEN July 28 2008

PACKING UP FOR BEIJING

SPORTS

The yachts and water bottles are already there. Horses are next.

KEN MACQUEEN

He may be the best athlete in the world in his discipline, a study in grace and power at the peak of his career. He is one of Canada’s great hopes for Olympic gold in China, so when he flies off to compete in early August you’d better believe he’ll have kid-glove treatment. Extra legroom? Naturally. Special food and drink? Of course. Flight attendants will monitor his moods and wants. They’ll whisper encouragement and feed him snacks on takeoff and landing to sooth his warrior spirit and to make his ears pop. Athletes like Hickstead (he goes by but a single name) don’t want their ears bothered by changes in air pressure, says Mike Gallagher, one of those charged with meeting his needs. “Their ears will plug up and they don’t understand what’s happening to them, just like a baby,” he says. “They can’t cry, but they can start kicking.”

You don’t want kicking. Hickstead is a very large stallion. He is the four-legged half of the Olympic duo that includes rider Eric Lamaze. Without Hickstead, Lamaze would be at considerable disadvantage clambering alone over the equestrian jumps in the Olympic show ring of the storied Hong Kong Jockey

Club. Hickstead is one of 19 Canadian horses to be airlifted to Hong Kong, where the equestrian events will be staged for the Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games, says Gallagher, equestrian team leader. If you’ve ever flown with young children, you can imagine just some of the challenges—and the piles of equipment—that entails.

Getting to the Olympics in any sport is about sweating the details, for athlete and organizer alike. It all boils down to an old cautionary nursery tale that even Hickstead can appreciate. For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of a horse... you just blew a chance at a medal. Behind—well, ahead of—Canada’s 330-odd athletes on the road to China are the team leaders and a world-class crew of planners, packers and bearers. They climb mountains of paperwork, ford bureaucratic swamps and clairvoyantly anticipate their athletes’ needs and emergencies six months or a year ahead of time.

They toil, so, when the time comes in Beijing, Canada’s wrestling team will have its portable sauna and the yachting association will have its flotilla of boats as well as team leader Evert Bastet’s supply of Raisin Bran. “He can’t seem to eat anything else for breakfast,” says head coach Ken Dool.

At the head of this supply convoy is Carla Anderson, the Canadian Olympic Commit-

tee’s manager of operations. She’s been dispatching equipment by sea and air to major sporting events since her first Olympics in 1992. When the Games open, athletes can expect a mini Canadian city in the midst of the Beijing athletes’ village, she promises. As many as possible of the bulky and heavy items were loaded in April into five 12-m-long shipping containers, which left Vancouver in midMay. Inside are sailboats, long, frail rowing shells and canoes. There is an entire standalone health centre staffed by nine Canadian doctors. It offers a full pharmacy, from painkillers to condoms, almost every medical procedure short of surgery, and a “wellness centre” including massages, physiotherapy and ice baths to combat the heat, says Antoine Atallah, medical mission manager. “They feel like home and they can expect the same quality [care],” he says. “Sometimes better.”

The cycling association has shipped 1,000 empty water bottles in the sea lift, but its 15 riders insist on taking their bikes on the plane with them. “It’s kind of like letting go of that blanket when you’re a little kid,” says high performance manager Sean O’Donnell. The COC added a new initiative in Beijing: a fully equipped gym and training centre, “strictly reserved for Canadians,” says Anderson. It’s one more way to lessen culture shock and make athletes feel at home.

Food ranks with heat and pollution as a preoccupation for Canada’s athletes. Most have packed stashes of snacks and specialty items. For the cyclists, it’s an experimental frozen slush drink to bring down body temperatures. They, like most teams, will eat at the athletes’ village. “We’ll live with the menu that’s going to be there,” says O’Donnell. Canada’s triathletes, however, are staying in a villa close to their race venue. They’ve hired Victoria chef Cosmo Meens, a favourite of team member Simon Whitfield, and a specialist in raw and organic foods.

Included in the sea lift is a clothing store of uniforms for opening ceremonies, events, medal presentations and casual wear. It was packed months before many of the teams and athletes were selected, making size selection a challenge. As a result, two seamstresses will be on site for alterations, says Anderson. By late June, the containers of Olympic essentials were somewhere on the Pacific Oceanstill aboard ship, she hoped. Did you know, she asks, there’s an industry dedicated to salvaging containers that fall off ships? “If I have nightmares, it’s that the team clothing is at the bottom of the ocean.” By mid-July, however, the containers had arrived at the Beijing warehouse. “I’m not saying anything to jinx us,” she said, not yet ready to relax, “as it is in customs but not yet cleared.”

In fact, the COC leaves the fine detail, if not the worry, to experts. The sea and air freight, customs clearance and warehousing in Beijing is handled by Schenker of Canada, a transport logistics company with a specialized sports events division. Carlson Wagonlit Travel handles arrangements for about 700

members of the Canadian delegation. The team includes—in addition to athletes, coaches, sports psychologists, physiologists and physiotherapists—such exotic additions as a meteorologist for the sailing team and a blacksmith. The logistics for Canada’s horses-the most demanding and delicate part of the operation—are handled by Peden Bloodstock, an international equine shipping company.

The five horses for “eventing” (a multi-day triathlon of dressage, cross-country and jumping) are already in Florida, training and acclimatizing to the heat. They’ll fly from Atlanta on a Cathay Pacific air freighter, complete with a veterinarian, and equine flight attendants. “It’s an expensive little venture,” says Gallagher. The cost to the COC of getting each horse to the airport, including training time, hotel bills, trucking, veterinary and inspection fees, is about $15,000 each, which ain’t hay. (Well, some of it is.) The return airfare is paid by the Beijing organizing committee. (The COC’s entire cargo budget for Beijing is about $500,000.)

The horses ride in metal stalls, not unlike the travel trailers they’re used to. Ideally, if they’re travelling in a jumbo cargo plane, they don’t even know they’re flying. They

are loaded inside the warehouse and the boxes are carried onto the plane by forklift. “Once they’re in the plane, we’ll open up the front so they can stick their heads out and see,” says Gallagher. “They think they are just in a giant truck.” The boxes are designed for three horses, but they’ll carry two for the 14hour flight. “It’s like business class instead of economy, there’s a little more room to spread out,” he says. One of the challenges en route is keeping the horses hydrated. “A horse quite often, especially a new traveller, will turn its nose up at the water,” he says. In those cases, a veterinarian sets an intravenous drip to avoid the risk of serious illness. The “human athletes” usually fly ahead separately, and not in such style, so they are there to unload their mounts.

The riders are as protective of their custom gear as the cyclists are of their bikes, so saddles fly with the athletes. Gallagher loaded lesser items, like buckets and blankets, in the shipping containers. And nails? “But of course,” he says. And just in case—and perhaps for a bit of extra luck—he’s included three pairs of shoes per horse. M

Rachel Mendleson

Aleksandar Zivojinovic