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Canadian Olympic rower Carling Zeeman prepares to go out on the water at the Elk Lake training facility in Victoria, on Dec. 9, 2020. Rowing Canada started prepping in 2019 for the herculean task of shipping equipment across the globe for the Tokyo Olympics.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Members of Canada’s national rowing teams aren’t scheduled to arrive in Tokyo for the summer Olympics until late June, but their boats are already on the way. Twelve long, sleek boats and sets of oars – leased from a manufacturer in Germany – left for Japan a few weeks ago in a big sea freight container, together with those of their competitors. As for the team’s breadmakers, board games and slushy machines, those are travelling separately.

Long before Canada’s athletes can go for the gold in any sport this summer, there are highly complex plans afoot to transport hundreds of team members – including horses for equestrian events – and thousands of kilograms of gear, favourite foods, team clothing and boats.

It’s challenging at the best of times to get all those athletes and their equipment across the world to compete, but during a global pandemic – a head-spinning time for international travel and shipping – it’s become a herculean task.

Rowing Canada started prepping in 2019 at the junior world championships in Tokyo, which gave the organization valuable experience and insights into what to pack and how to get it there – for the Games and the pre-event training camp they’ll hold 50 kilometres away in Sagamihara City. When they discovered that whole-grain bread wasn’t easy to find in Japan, team leaders took note and decided to bring breadmaking machines to the Olympics and Paralympics, so they could bake their own. They thought of how to deal with Japan’s extreme summer heat and planned to bring cooling tubs and slushy machines.

Board games – to help keep bubbled athletes entertained – maintenance tools and a variety of other items have been packed into three huge shipping pallets that will fly to Tokyo well ahead of the Olympics, which open July 23. (Although there are cries around the world to cancel the Games, including among Japanese citizens concerned about the risks of hosting during a pandemic, the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo host committee say they’re expecting to proceed as scheduled).

The Canadian Olympic Committee will send some 400 athletes and the Canadian Paralympic Committee about 130. They have plenty of experience sending people and their stuff to major Games – even at the last minute following late qualifying events. Yet preparing for Tokyo has created some unique challenges, even for the most seasoned logistics staffers.

The COC had to store 31,000 pieces of Hudson’s Bay Team Canada clothing for the athletes since the Tokyo Games got postponed last year. An array of items – denim and maple leafed, red and white – were unpacked and hung by the thousands in a Montreal warehouse to protect the collection from dust, must or unsightly creases before the world sees it on Canadian athletes. Now comes the massive job of re-packing it all.

In the past, the COC and CPC have gathered gear and essentials from their sports, packed them into sea freight containers and sent one big Team Canada shipment a few months in advance of the Games. They sent 18 of those containers over the water to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Yet for this summer’s Games, sending that big Canadian shipment on a months-long journey over the ocean carried more risks, such as pandemic-related shipping delays or even Games cancellation. This year, the COC and CPC decided to charter a cargo plane instead, buying themselves more time to pack and a precise arrival date.

Like the rowers, Canada’s other sports have packed all kinds of things needed to train, compete and feel at home in Japan – medical supplies, tools, coolers, fans, cleaning supplies, masks, horse blankets, bike pumps, blenders and the Canadian foods that help them perform, like protein bars, maple syrup and peanut butter (one of the most popular items across all sports, according to the COC). While many of these items are available in Japan, strict restrictions on participants’ movements in Tokyo mean they won’t be able to shop for them there.

The shipment is much smaller than Rio’s was, since with no foreign fans attending the Tokyo Games, and strict distancing rules in place, there is no need to bring the hospitality items the COC usually brings to entertain visiting Canadians and athletes at large gatherings. In total, approximately 260 pallets of inventory will travel by truck from Montreal to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, then fly to Japan’s Narita Airport in a few weeks.

“It’s all been a huge change in our usual plans, but we’re going to be more comfortable for these Games knowing exactly when the flight arrives in 12 hours instead of in two months on a boat,” said Céline DesLauriers, Senior Manager of Games at the COC. “We’re juggling a lot of moving pieces every day, but I think we’re doing it with a smile.”

Of course, not everything can go that early on a cargo plane.

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Canada's Tiffany Foster riding Tripple X III takes part in the jumping competition at the Olympic Equestrian Centre during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 17, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / John MACDOUGALLJOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty ImagesJOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP

Of all the sports headed to Tokyo, few face the variety of logistical hurdles that Equestrian Canada does as it prepares to send 11 horses and riders, plus staff, to Tokyo across the dressage, eventing, show jumping and para dressage events. Each will depart more than two weeks before competing in Tokyo, because their journeys will be so complex. In addition to protecting the humans against COVID-19, they must shield the horses from a different illness that’s taken lives this year: a neurological strain of equine herpes virus, spread by droplets and horse-to-horse contact.

Equestrian is a sport with years of biosecurity experience, monitoring the health of the animals travelling between countries. Before they can go to Tokyo, Canada’s horses, riders and staff will first fly to Aacken, Germany, to do a mandatory seven-day quarantine at a competition venue there, in a secure bubble with other horses also headed to the Games. There, horses will be separated and strictly supervised by independent experts who can verify the animals’ health before they are allowed into Japan.

The horses’ health and whereabouts must be recorded for 60 days before travel. They fly on special cargo planes – standing in stalls with food and water, much as they would in horse trailers. Grooms and vets are onboard to care for the horses, since the animals can become sick or anxious during travel.

Equestrian Canada initially hoped to quarantine in the U.S. with other North American horses and then take one long flight to Tokyo. But the usual cargo company with direct flights from North America to Japan limited the number of staff allowed onboard because of new COVID-19 protocols. So the Canadians scrapped that plan and will fly through Europe and quarantine there, going with an air carrier that allows more staff to fly with the horses.

In Aacken, the humans are tested for COVID-19 and the horses are temperature-checked, tested for equine herpes and other things, from parasites to equine infectious anemia. Extra days are built in to help the horses recover from “shipping fever,” mild sickness after travel that eases in a day or two. Then they’ll fly from Liège, Belgium to Tokyo, where guidelines will also be strict.

If a horse’s core temperature gets too high, team veterinarians need to figure out whether it’s a sign of equine herpesvirus fever, shipping fever or heat stroke, said Equestrian Canada High Performance Director James Hood. “On our way to Tokyo, our bubbles are going to keep getting bigger, so everyone has to be so diligent to keep everyone safe – horses and people.”

Canada has lots of other boats going to Japan, too – canoes and kayaks that will all have different journeys. Smaller boats like those belonging to the Canoe Slalom team are checked as baggage on passenger flights.

The Canoe Sprint team, which uses longer boats, has a fleet of sprint canoes that it uses to train and compete in Canada, and rents another fleet in Europe to use there. It’s those European boats that are making the trek to Tokyo. Following a recent competition in Hungary, the boats were loaded into a shipping container with boats from several competing countries and set off for Japan.

The Canoe Sprint athletes will check their paddles on their flights, and bring along the inside parts that customize the boat, like seats, foot rests and knee pads.

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Canada's Tom Ramshaw competes in the Finn Men sailing class on Guanabara Bay, during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, on August 11, 2016. Canada's sailing team shipped some of its boats in March.WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images

Canada’s sailing team also keeps boats in Europe, where many of its sailors have been training. In March, they loaded some into a shipping container from Barcelona and sent them off for Tokyo. One last Canadian boat shared some space in Team USA’s container to Japan, following a recent competition in Portugal.

“We were terrified there for a bit that our boats were going to get stuck in the Suez Canal,” said Sailing Canada High Performance Director Mike Milner. “We were told our shipment didn’t get delayed, but I guess we’ll find out for sure in about five, six weeks when our boats arrive in Tokyo.”

Canada’s insulated container carrying seven sailboats and four coaches’ motor boats will go ashore when it arrives and be transformed into a daily operating hub for Canada’s sailing team during the Games. They will equip it with an air conditioner, an office and athlete lockers.

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Canada's women's team pursuit team of Allison Beveridge, Jasmin Glaesser, Kirsti Lay, and Georgia Simmerling celebrate winning the bronze medal during track cycling at the velodrome at the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Aug. 13, 2016. Canada's track cycling athletes will fly together with about 40 bags of checked luggage that includes their bikes.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

One monster challenge for logistics planners: The flights to Japan have been changing and direct flights to Tokyo are hard to get. For teams like track cycling, whose athletes will likely fly together with about 40 bags of checked luggage that include bikes, connecting flights could spell major headaches if they end up on a smaller plane with not enough cargo space for all their gear.

“It’s quite stressful for the [bike] mechanics, making sure that every single piece has made it through and dealing with customs,” said Cycling Canada High Performance Director Kris Westwood.

Javelins and pole vault poles go in protective cases in checked baggage on athletes’ flights, when the airline can accommodate them. Sport wheelchairs are checked on passenger flights too as they head to the Paralympics. The goal is always to try and prevent athletes from lugging too much stuff so they can preserve energy for the upcoming competition.

“Our motto is usually like, ‘We want to put heads on their pillows really quickly,’” said Catherine Gosselin-Després, CPC’s Executive Director of Sport. “Or people eating as quickly as possible – whatever they need when they arrive.”

Normally, the sports federations have more flexibility about when they can fly athletes to the Games and home again. But the pandemic has hit the airline industry hard, and the number of available flights is in flux. Also, per Games protocols and to limit numbers of people, athletes can only arrive in the village in Tokyo five to seven days before they compete and must leave within 48 hours after they’re done. For many, it’s very tough to find flights in their tight window.

Before they can leave for Tokyo, every person must submit two negative COVID-19 tests within 96 hours of their flight along with a meticulous 14-day plan of all their planned destinations.

“Some sports we know have a definite end date for an athlete, but others, the athletes could be eliminated early and then there’s a whole chain reaction that needs to happen for us to get them tested, get them a flight and back to Canada quickly,” said Marie-Andrée Lessard, a 2012 Canadian beach volleyball Olympian who now acts as the COC’s Director of Games.

“It’s going to require us to be always on the edge.”

Logistics staff from the CPC usually arrive near the end of an Olympics to observe, debrief and get advice from their COC colleagues before the Paralympics begin. The CPC says that overlap of people likely won’t be advisable in Tokyo, so all of that valuable experience may have to be passed along virtually instead.

While doing all of this, the COC and CPC are also juggling logistics for the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, which follow just six months later.

“There have been great lessons in this journey, because we’ve gotten really comfortable with uncertainty and volatility,” said Ms. Lessard. “I’m really looking forward to next Games when there’s a lot more certainty.”

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