The logistics of the 2018 PeongChang Winter Games

Aerial view of Olympics competition venues in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Before the 2018 Winter Olympics begin in PyeongChang, South Korea, in February, thousands of athletes, media correspondents and their equipment—think bobsleds, skis, luges, hockey sticks, biathlon rifles, and lots of ice skates for the athletes and television cameras, microphones, and lights for the media—will arrive in the alpine, forested region in the north of the country. Over five thousand athletes and more than ten thousand members of the media will make the journey to Gangwon Province. Each of those people will need equipment and goods to do their job, and the process of getting that material through customs and into PyeongChang poses a logistical challenge unique to the Olympic Games.

The PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (POCOG) has appointed Hanjin Transportation Co. as the official logistics supplier of the games. Hanjin Transportation, a subsidiary of the Hanjin Group, a South Korean holding company founded in 1945, also includes a customs brokerage company that has promised to provide additional logistical services in the country of origin, including goods survey, packing, vehicle loading, and export documentation handling, as well as transportation by air, land, and sea to Olympic venues, customs services in South Korea, and last mile storage and delivery in PyeongChang itself. At least Hanjin won’t have to deal with the hundreds of horses from around the world required for the equestrian events in the Summer Games. 

Rock-It Cargo, the exclusive warehousing service of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games, passed along a list of 3 logistics tips they’ve learned from their demanding Olympics assignment. Rock-It emphasized the importance of adaptable warehouse space that can handle everything from huge gymnastic mats to batting cages, distribution solutions that provide visibility and no interruptions, and flawless warehouse management combining logistics professionals and sophisticated software systems. Statistics from past Olympic Games indicate the volumes that Rock-It will be expected to handle: UPS handled the warehousing for the 2012 London Summer Games, and, including the reverse logistics of moving everything back out of the city, handled 30M items through the duration of the competition. 

The PyeongChang Winter Games probably won’t face typical urban logistics issues like the severe traffic congestion that plagued Rio de Janeiro during the 2016 Summer Games, but Winter Games, typically held in rural mountain regions, come with their own obstacles. The host city’s transportation system has to be able to handle an additional 1.5-2M supplementary journeys, and the International Olympics Committee stipulates that public transit must be free to anyone with an accredited Olympic pass. In large, congested cities like Rio, that additional demand can strain transportation systems past their breaking point; the smaller cities that usually host the Winter Games typically have to add infrastructure to accommodate the high volume of passengers.

The 2014 Sochi Winter Games required the construction of new railways and roads to facilitate the rapid movement of spectators to and from the venues near the Black Sea coastal town. The PyeongChang games have also necessitated roadbuilding: a new expressway was built between Seongnam and Anyang that reduces travel time from Incheon International Airport to the main Olympic venues by 40 minutes; while the athletes and members of the media will ride in a high-speed train from the airport to the venue, their luggage and equipment will travel along the new expressway by truck. The expressway from Seoul to Yangyang County in Gangwon Province was extended by 75 km, which will cut travel time from South Korea’s capital city to the Olympic venues down to 90 minutes from the current 130 minutes. In all, 16 roads were either expanded or built new for the PyeongChang games.

The last-minute announcement by North Korea that it would send a delegation of hundreds of athletes, state officials, cheerleaders, and artistic performers to the PyeongChang games has added another headache to Olympic logistics planners. “Some of the hotels are already fully booked. I am worried where to accommodate such a large number of North Korean people. It is not easy to secure decent accommodations near the stadiums,” said Ryu Se-yeong, head of Allami Korea, one of the private security firms hired for the games. There are security risks both from South Korean extremists who may try to attack the North Korean delegation, as well as the danger than some North Korean athletes may try to defect to the south while they’re in country. More than 1,000 North Koreans have defected every year over the last five years. To keep an eye on their athletes, North Korea’s delegation will be beefed up with intelligence agents such that there will be a handler for every two or three participants, according to an estimate by Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. 

“Pyongyang will first reference the songbun system, its hereditary loyalty classification system that sorts the entire populace into loyal ‘core class,’ a middle ‘wavering class,’ and a ‘hostile class.’ Only the most loyal persons from the ‘core class’ will be selected to represent the country at such a high profile international event as the Olympics,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.

The exact size of the North Korean delegation and its travel route to PyeongChang, which lies just 50 miles from the heavily mined and fortified border, have yet to be determined. “What we suggested to the North in December was sending a cruise ship because that could solve both accommodation and security,” said Kim Kyung-sung, chairman of a Seoul-based inter-Korean sports association, who met North Korean officials in December. 

Apart from handling international freight, the transportation system, and the security and diplomatic planning that will go into accommodating the North Korean delegation, there are a myriad of other logistical challenges unique to large sporting events. Food, for instance, which is consumed in massive quantities by world-class athletes operating at their peak. The International Olympics Committee requires the dining hall in the Olympic Village to provide hot meals 24/7. Here are some statistics from the 2004 Summer Games in Athens: on a typical day, the main cafeteria in the Olympic Village served 60,000 meals prepared by 700 chefs and cooks. The dining hall took in shipments of 460,000 lbs of raw ingredients every single day. Last July, Shinsegae Food, a subsidiary of Korea’s Shinsegae Group, stepped up to be an Official Supporter of the PyeongChang Winter Games, entering into an agreement to provide catering services for athletes, coaches, and volunteers, as well as concessions for spectators at the competition venues. 

If that sounds exorbitantly expensive, it is, and that’s why host cities rely on huge armies of volunteers to cut labor costs. The Sydney Olympics in 2000 used 40,000 volunteers to save $60M in wages; at the Rio Olympics, 70,000 volunteers saved the city over $100M, which represented 3% of Rio de Janeiro’s total spend on hosting the games. Recruiting, training, supplying, and managing those volunteers (not to mention feeding them) poses, of course, its own logistical burden. 

For host cities, the Olympic Games raises their international prestige to be sure, but also often leaves them indebted for huge venues they no longer need. For logistics providers, the Games represent an opportunity to make big margins on cost-plus contracts on one of the biggest, and most visible stages in the world. The upside, if everything goes well, is getting your company’s name attached to a successful Olympic Games—the downside, in the event of failure, is being immortalized as the party responsible for shortages, delays, and chaos. 

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John Paul Hampstead, Associate Editor

John Paul writes about current events and economics, especially politics, finance, and commodities, and holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Michigan. In previous lives John Paul studied Shakespeare in London and Buddhism in India, but now he focuses on transportation and logistics in the heart of Freight Alley--Chattanooga. He spends his free time with his wife and daughter herding cats, collecting books, and walking alongside the Tennessee River.