Some people have asked me what it’s like to be in the Olympic village. I’ve only really visited one Olympic village, and it was for a winter games (Vancouver, and winter games’ villages are much, much smaller than those constructed for summer games). I have also never stayed at an Olympic village as an athlete, which I imagine is very different to someone who is there on a visitor’s pass. I will, however, offer my insight since people did ask nicely.
First off, the winter games is peculiar in that there are actually two villages. The reason for this is obvious if you think about it – there are the ‘ice’ sports of short track, long track, figure skating, ice hockey, and curling (I have a funny feeling I’ve left someone out…), and then you have all the sports which require a mountain – the skiing sports, snowboarding, the jumps, the sliding sports, etc. In the past, there have been host cities which managed to keep all of these close enough to keep everyone in one village, but recent games have been somewhat divided.
So the idea is that there is accommodation for a large number of athletes. In the very earliest days of the games, especially the winter games, which are much smaller than the summer games, athletes and support staff probably stayed at hotels. But as the games expanded, there simply weren’t enough hotels to accommodate everyone, so villages were built. This is actually a great idea because it allows a city to build a large amount of housing in a well-planned way, along with the many amenities which ought to accompany large housing projects, alongside some infrastructure, all using ‘the Olympics’ as a convenient excuse. I can’t speak for the conditions in Sochi, but the village in Vancouver was made up of blocks of luxury apartments which, I am told, were eventually all sold for a hefty profit.
For many host countries, hosting a games is a massive PR campaign for the city and the country. I’ve mentioned in previous articles that hosting a games is usually a massive money sink, but the benefits often come later. The games can have the effect of putting a small city on the map (honestly, how many people knew that Sochi even existed before 2014?), they can rejuvenate a city, or very simply inject cash into the economy through the large numbers of people who visit the city to watch the games. In the village, this is generally apparent in the hosts efforts to ‘impress’ everyone by creating a positive village experience. In Vancouver, apart from having a nice bunch of flats, there were numerous party rooms, a large athlete’s lounge, complete with console games, a pool table, and a wall-sized screen in front of which athletes could sit in bean bags and watch the day’s events, and of course a large dining hall.
The picture above was taken from the athlete’s lounge in Vancouver. Since hockey players were always busy playing games, and all the skiing and sliding sports were in another village, speedskaters were pretty reliably in the majority in the lounge most of the time. This had the interesting (and convenient) effect of ensuring that speed skating was always on the big screen. In the background, you can see a live jazz band playing quietly in the background just to ‘add to the mood’, and whenever we were hanging out outside, we would sometimes randomly come across a street performer doing magic tricks with cards (those Canadians know how to impress). In fact, one of my enduring memories from the Vancouver games was sitting in the athletes lounge, playing Beethoven’s moonlight sonata during the zamboni break, then sitting down for the second half of the mens 1500m and watching Mark Tuitert of the Netherlands take a surprising gold medal in front of heavily-favoured Shani Davis.
The dining hall is an interesting deal. In Vancouver at least, it looked like any well-appointed food court that you would find in an upmarket shopping mall, but with one crucial difference – you didn’t have to pay for anything. You just walked up to whichever counter you felt like, and ordered food, and they would bring it to you. A bit like Google perhaps, but with better quality food (yes, I’ve dined at Google, I’m not just making this up). A curious artefact of Olympic sponsorship deals is that there is always a McDonalds in the Olympic village dining hall. At the start of the games, McDonalds employees may as well play cards all day. Almost nobody visits the McDonalds stand. However, as the games wear on, and people complete their events, the McDonalds becomes more and more busy, with people who just want to let go.
One of my other enduring memories from the Vancouver games involves the McDonalds in the Olympic village. Taking advantage of the free food on offer (in a way that only a guy who’d been to boarding school can…) we decided to have a Mc-challenge. My challenge was to eat 100 chicken McNuggets. Box after box they came, and nugget after nugget I ate. Realistically, and this isn’t so much a boast as a statement of fact, the amount of food that makes up 100 nuggets should not have been a problem for me, as I have eaten ridiculous quantities of food before without a hitch. However, for whatever reason (and I suspect that all the weird chemicals that go into fast food have something to do with it) I really hit a wall at about the 40-nugget mark. By the time I got to 50, I wasn’t full, but I felt so sick that I simply couldn’t go on. My stomach seemed to be trying to tie itself in knots, and standing up completely straight was a little painful. The feeling was so bad, that I couldn’t eat anything for the next 24 hours or so.
Outside the village, there are the various countries’ ‘houses’. These are places which each country’s Olympic committee arranges as a gathering place for athletes and their supporters and families outside the village (guest passes to the village are sometimes troublesome to arrange, and the village is off-limits to media most of the time). Countries as small as Australia don’t often have these houses, while other countries like Holland have become famous for their openly-accessible “Holland Heineken House” which has become one of the go-to party locations, especially if the Dutch pick up a medal in the speed skating (which is often). Other houses are more exclusive, often requiring an invite, or in some cases the showing of a passport.
On the other side of the media fence, there is an often overlooked facility known to those in the know as the “IBC” – International Broadcast Centre. This is where ALL the media from all the different countries gather to operate their coverage. It is an interesting place, with very tight security, and where observing what goes on can give you a great insight into not only how different countries conduct their broadcasts, but also into the culture of those countries themselves. The NBC section in the Vancouver IBC, for example, was a small town unto itself, with its own cafeteria complete with a Starbucks (NBC’s media budget for the 2010 games was over a billion dollars). The Australian section, by contrast was a number of interconnected rooms which were cosy, a little cramped, but got the job done – there was barely enough room for a studio big enough to conduct interviews with athletes.
So that’s the deal when it comes to non-venue locations at the games. Someday in the not-too-distant future I may get to see this all again, but from the perspective of a coach, or perhaps as a member of the media. Either way, I can’t help but marvel at the impressive logistical task it is to put an Olympic games together (which is why, in my ‘complaints’ article, I largely missed out the gripes that others had been making about facilities).
Don’t forget to click on the sochi2104 tag below to read other articles about these olympics. You may also want to read some of the other ‘Sochi Specials’ which have been very popular. Ever wondered what a day in the life of an athlete was like? Maybe you’ve been thinking about the fairness of deciding the race by as small a margin as 0.003 of a second. Or alternatively, are seeking a detailed numerical analysis of Shani Davis’s races to determine for yourself whether the suits really made a difference. Also check out the article added earlier today, where I complain about the news coverage of the games.