Memories of the Olympic Village

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Every Olympic city provides separate housing for the world's media and an Olympic Village for the athletes, coaches and team officials.

By most accounts, Vancouver's Olympic housing is a jewel. At the very least, what it clearly is not is a converted mental hospital. So that's an upgrade.

Let me explain.

Sydney, Australia, 2000 Summer Olympics. A few weeks out, my boss informs me a mistake on the housing form means we will not have single rooms as we usually do at the Olympics. He knows three weeks is a long time to share a room with anyone, including Charlize Theron.

What can I say? It's not as if I'm relegated to a double and he has somehow found a single for himself.

The room-sharing turns out to be the good news. My boss tells me he snores. I sleep so lightly I can hear a fly landing on Kleenex. Never one to think the worst, I immediately imagine a jet engine at takeoff with me strapped to the wing for three weeks.

If anyone doubted that Aussies have a ripe sense of humor, here came the clincher. In Sydney, the boss says, the media will be housed in a former mental hospital.

At first glance, it seems to me that could come in handy. If I am driven crazy by long work days and too little sleep, at least it will be a short drive.

Upon inspection, the media "village" -- a quaint term for sure given the circumstances -- was a sterile, antiseptic campus. The buildings were crammed between the hemisphere's largest cemetery and a highway. Near one of the bars was a penned-in area.

What passed for ambiance was inside an electric fence. Kangaroos.

Historical Note

1932-games

The first Olympic Village was constructed for the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. It was male only and consisted of sleeping quarters, cafeteria, amphitheatre, post office, telegraph office. No women or kangaroos. Women were put up in a hotel. This might have been the last Olympic Village that did not produce legendary stories of hanky panky among athletes. More on that later.

As they should, the athletes usually get the better end of the housing deal at the Olympics. They've worked tremendously hard for it, some suffering great financial hardship for the dream of chasing an Olympic medal, sometimes in a sport that no one much pays attention to except for a few days every four years.

They deserve to spend their days and nights surrounded by amenities and other athletes in the prime of their physical lives while those of us in the media are relegated to looking at other sportswriters in various stages of wardrobe malfunctions and sleep deprivation.

I'll go out on the limb here and say the contrast was never quite so stark as it was in Sydney.

I remember being on a plane for 24 hours, stopping at the Media Village bar for a Fosters, then strapping on my Bose headphones and hoping the sound of lapping surf would somehow jam my roommate's signal. A few hours later, I awoke to the roar of nasal thunder, and that was pretty much the routine for the next 10 days.

Olympic Fever

Long days of work writing about Olympic endeavors (and sleepless nights) took a rising toll until I ended up fainting one night. Chills. Sweat. Shivering. The next morning I went to a makeshift infirmary in the Media Center.

For athletes in Sydney -- and every other Olympic city -- access to medical treatments, massages, whatever, from caring team doctors and athletic trainers in the Olympic Village go with the territory. Day or night.

Outside the Olympic Village, the options for medical treatment aren't quite as varied and, in Sydney, did not hold the promise of a sympathetic bedside manner.

I entered the infirmary with some trepidation. Aussies are a hardy bunch. Unless a shark has bitten off a body part, an Aussie is expected to walk off whatever's hurting.

In fact, the first day in Sydney the newspaper carried what I thought was a remarkable story of a 10 year old boy who fought off a shark attack. I mentioned it to an Aussie reporter.

"Pretty amazing," I said.

He shrugged. "Not really, mate. It was only a six-footer."

I had that in the back of my mind when I went to see the doctor. My hope was that I had contracted some kind of illness -- nothing fatal, just enough to warrant his recommendation that I get my own room. Instead, he felt my forehead, shook my hand and said, "Drink more water. Next."

Maybe that's why I've always thought of the Athlete's Village as Shangri-La.

Village People

My brief visits to the Village over the years never constituted an extensive tour. Security measures did not allow for it. But I did go to the one in Sydney to interview the swimmer Eric "The Eel" Moussambani from Equatorial Guinea. He swam the slowest 100 meters in Olympic history, taking on water from the start and finishing pretty much like the S.S. Minnow washed ashore on Gilligan's Island. [Watch Moussambani's Olympic moment.]

ericeel.jpg

The people who weren't clapping for him were dialing 9-1-1.

The next day, Moussambani met a few of us at the Athlete's Village and talked of how he'd been training for only eight months in a 20-meter hotel pool in his native country. He spoke of never having seen a 50-meter pool.

While we waited for him to arrive, I remember thinking that every athlete who walked by looked happy beyond description. And why not? Each Athlete's Village has international cuisine 24-7. And, of course, McDonald's. Free.

Video games. Discos. Concerts. Movies. Internet access.

Free. Free. Free. Free. Free.

Every delegation's arrival is greeted with fanfare and the playing of that country's national anthem.

It is a city within a city and there is no police force. Alcohol is not served, just occasionally smuggled or more often consumed in the downtown bars after an athlete finishes competing.

The Socially Vigorous Life

If that's not why it constitutes the time of an athlete's life, maybe it's condom giveaways at every Olympics. (Vancouver is no different. One hundred thousand condoms were made available to the 7,000 athletes, coaches and athletic trainers housed in the two Athlete's Villages. Vancouver even introduced the Hurry Hard condom (seriously), marketing a phrase curlers use in their sport to get teammates to sweep the ice more vigorously).

Sydney, by comparison, handed out 70,000 condoms in the Olympic Village in 2000 only to air-lift in 20,000 more a week later. With three days to go, they ran out of those, too.

Olympic organizing committees long ago decided that when thousands of attractive, physically fit people gather in the same place for a few weeks it's socially responsible to supply protection.

vigorousIn 2004, Carrie Sheinberg, an alpine skiing champ (pictured), told The Scotsman, Scotland's national newspaper, that while she wouldn't call what happens in the Athlete's Village an orgy she would term it "socially vigorous."

One Olympian recently called it "an adult Disney World."

Vancouver's waterside downtown Athlete's Village is all that, no doubt, with million dollar views of the city and the snowcapped mountains overlooking it. It will be sold off as condos after the Olympics.

Those who have seen the inside report there is a 45,000-square foot lounge, a post office, cafe. This one even has an art gallery.

And no shortage of perfect human forms walking around.

"It's really a question of which flavour do you like," American swimmer Nelson Diebel told The Scotsman. "The only thing you're deprived of is fat. If you're the rare athlete who likes sedentary bodies, you're out of luck."

Not really. That's what the Media Village is for.

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

February 27, 2010 - 11:25am
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