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updated: 7/17/2012 12:33 PM

Olympic travel tricky for tourists, let alone pole vaulters

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  • Members of the U.S. Olympic sailing team are escorted following their arrival Monday at Heathrow Airport in London, where arriving athletes added to a record number of passengers. The Games begin July 27 and run through Aug. 12.

      Members of the U.S. Olympic sailing team are escorted following their arrival Monday at Heathrow Airport in London, where arriving athletes added to a record number of passengers. The Games begin July 27 and run through Aug. 12.
    Associated Press

  • It's smooth sailing for these smiling members of the U.S. Olympic sailing team as they chat with a British police officer following their arrival at Heathrow Airport in London.

      It's smooth sailing for these smiling members of the U.S. Olympic sailing team as they chat with a British police officer following their arrival at Heathrow Airport in London.
    Associated Press

  • Traveling with bulky, odd-shaped athletic equipment is just part of the Olympic challenge for athletes. This cart belongs to members of the Russian Olympic team arriving Monday at Heathrow Airport in London.

      Traveling with bulky, odd-shaped athletic equipment is just part of the Olympic challenge for athletes. This cart belongs to members of the Russian Olympic team arriving Monday at Heathrow Airport in London.
    Associated Press

  • Video: Jeff Hartwig at Olympic trial

 
 

If you are one of the lucky suburbanites flying to London to see the Olympics, the understandably tight security is going to get your attention. Record crowds, which began with Monday's first arrivals, are taxing the security forces at Heathrow Airport.

You, of course, are not going to be able to fly into Heathrow if your carry-on bag contains knitting needles, fingernail scissors or a shampoo bottle that is too large because you botched the ounces-to-milliliters conversion. Once you get into the country, there's a longer list of things you can't bring into Olympic venues during the games, which run from July 27 through Aug. 12.

In addition to banning the usual sharp, pointy things and suspicious liquids, the Olympic folks really clamp down on things that have been perfectly acceptable at a World Cup match.

Vuvuzelas, hunting calls (including your iPhone's realistic turkey call app), rattles, musical instruments or other noisemakers are not allowed. You can't wear one of those oversized American foam cowboy hats. If you have a whistle or a laser light on your key chain, you will be forced to surrender it forever.

You can't bring in a placard or markers that might be used to stage a protest or scrawl a message on a stadium wall. Some events won't allow in a camera with interchangeable lenses. You also can't bring in an oversized flag or the flag of any nation not participating in the Olympics, which is bad news for anyone with a giant South Sudan flag.

As much as we'd appreciate you wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with "Visit DailyHerald.com," the Olympics ban spectators from wearing anything making an obvious marketing attempt.

If you are bringing a baby with you, be ready to ditch the stroller (not allowed at many events) and be prepared to wolf down some of your kid's strained "Zucchini Broccoli Medley" as "you may be asked to verify baby food by tasting it," warns the security website. If you travel with your own oregano, you should know that the ban of drugs includes "any substances which look like controlled drugs." The vague Olympic rule against "excessive amounts of food" might also curb the appetites of some more gluttonous Americans.

There are no reports of security issues for suburban Olympians such as Wheaton volleyballer Sean Rooney, water polo player and Hoffman Estates native Melissa Siedeman, rower Sarah Zelenka of Itasca, soccer player Amy LePeilbet of Crystal Lake, gymnast alternate Anna Li of Aurora, diver Christina Loukas of Riverwoods, and women basketball teammates Candace Parker, who played for Naperville Central High School, and Tamika Catchings, who played for Stevenson High School.

But how do athletes ever fly or get through security with pointy javelins, fencing swords, archery equipment, guns for the shooting events and those 17-foot-long pole vault poles that certainly look as if they could be some sort of portable missile launchers?

"For the Olympics or any other large event, the local security and organizers are always aware that they will be coming," says Jeff Hartwig, 44, a former Olympic pole vaulter in 1996 and 2008 who still competes internationally and also works with world-class athletes as an agent for USA Track & Field.

"Security is handled differently at each airport but normally they are passed through the luggage scanners just like a suitcase. Some carriers charge an extra/oversize fee," emails Hartwig, responding to my request for information from the U.S. Olympic Committee. "In some cases they will open the bags and pull out the poles."

Hartwig, who once won a 1996 meet at Eastern Illinois University by jumping a half-inch above 18 feet, set records and won championships. He was ranked as the top pole vaulter in the world in the non-Olympic year of 2002 and has a personal best of 19 feet, 9 inches. He says vaulters typically carry between five and 10 poles, which are made of fiberglass and sometimes have a carbon fiber.

"They all fit in a single tube," Hartwig says, adding most use a 6-inch corrugated plastic drain pipe. "It's strong and lightweight and most pole companies make a vinyl case that fits the pipe."

Do airlines ever damage a pole?

"Yes, all the time. The poles are generally very strong and durable but even small scratches can damage the poles so you always hope they remain in the case," Hartwig says. "I have never known a pole to get damaged while in the case unless the whole case gets run over. You would think it would be hard to miss a 17-foot-by-6-inch case, but I have seen them get run over by forklifts or luggage carts."

Leaving the airport also can be tricky.

"Most vaulters have cars with roof racks, like bicycle racks. They just strap them on top," Hartwig says. "For buses, they slide them in through the windows."

But if you find yourself queuing up to board one of London's double-deckers heading to Olympic Stadium, and a guy gets on before you carrying a 17-foot-long piece of luggage, you might want to wait for the next bus.

• Daily Herald staff writer Caitlin Swieca contributed to this report.

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