From hamburgers with Rafael Nadal to all-night parties, we lift the lid on life in the Olympic athletes’ quarters
It has been written anonymously, apparently by a British former Olympian, who is almost certainly not Sebastian Coe, and probably not the Princess Royal either. The book claims that life in the athletes’ village amounts to one great debauched party, and that the 70,000 condoms provided for the athletes at the Games in Sydney 12 years ago ran out within a week.
Can this be so? Has bed-hopping become the most popular sport in the Olympic village, the London one of which, incidentally, opens for occupation tomorrow? Certainly, it is no secret that there will be alcohol on campus: the American team alone has two sponsored beer halls, a Budweiser House and a Heineken House. And where there is alcohol and young, fit, libidinous men and women, there is invariably sex.
In terms of Olympic recognition, and with apologies to Philip Larkin, sexual intercourse began in 1992, between the start of the Ben Johnson ban and Great Britain’s eight-man winning crew. At any rate, it was in Barcelona that year that free condoms were supplied for the first time, as they have been at every Games since. This is not what Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic movement, was getting at when he said, at the close of the London Olympics of 1908, that the most important thing was the taking part.
No fewer than 100,000 condoms have been stockpiled for London 2012 along with, according to one report, “an industrial quantity” of pregnancy test kits. But Todd Lodwick, the American Nordic-combined skier and twice an Olympic champion, recently claimed that the bowls are traditionally emptied as a joke, suggesting that many athletes pocket them because it’s considered a laugh to pretend they’re all at it.
Even if they resist sex and vehicle snatching, how will, say, young footballers who earn tens of thousands of pounds a week and are rarely the most self-disciplined of sportsmen, adjust? It’s a long way from neo-Tudor mansions and five-star hotels to the little apartments with two single beds to a room and identical London 2012 duvet covers – not to mention the main dining tent in the village, big enough to store 880 double-decker buses and which, on its busiest day, will seat 4,500 athletes.
Of course footballers will not be the only young athletes unaccustomed to living humbly. Another is the great Rafael Nadal, 11 times Grand Slam tennis champion, who told me in a recent interview that he can’t wait to move into one of the 2,818 apartments awaiting the athletes in Stratford. The tennis is at Wimbledon, and getting from SW19 to E20 is bound to be a challenge, even in an air-conditioned car. However, Nadal rejected out of hand the offer of a luxury hotel room nearer the All-England Club. “The Olympics, spending time in the village with the rest of the Spanish team, is one of my greatest experiences,” he said. “I cannot miss being in the village.”
At the Beijing Games four years ago, Sir Clive Woodward, there as the British team’s deputy chef de mission (he remains so for this Games), was queuing at McDonald’s in the Olympic village, when he turned to find Nadal at the front of the line next to him, ordering a round of Big Macs for his Spanish team mates.
It was 2am and Nadal, having just arrived from Cincinnati, was jet-lagged. But even so: this was Nadal, buying Big Macs. At 2am. Once he’d got over his surprise, Woodward recognised the precious uniqueness of a situation in which a global sporting superstar is pitched into a queue for hamburgers. And that, manifestly, is what Nadal loves about it, too. He told me that he feels instinctively more of a herd animal than a lone wolf. Tennis, in that respect, does not suit his sensibilities. But in the village, he has the best of both worlds. A single bed is a small price to pay.
But single beds won’t suit everyone. An Olympic gold medallist confirmed to me last week – on strict condition that I keep his (household) name out of the story – the prevalence in the village of two, if not all three, of the unholy trinity of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. “There’s always a nightclub area for the Olympians to unwind and let their hair down,” he said. “Obviously, it’s quite a way from the accommodation because of the noise. But if you just want to focus on your event, the village is not necessarily the place to do it.”
Some competitors drink others under the medals table. The swimmers, he added, tended in his day to be the “most excitable party animals”. He recalled getting up at 6am to prepare for his event, and seeing the swimmers on their way home from a night’s partying. “They usually compete early on, which gives them plenty of time to enjoy themselves,” he said. Sometimes marriage ensues. At Barcelona, the story goes, Derek Redmond pulled his hamstring, and Sharron Davies pulled him.
More often, though, liaisons are fleeting. And my informant revealed that “a kind of hierarchy” prevails, headed by the male sprinters. “They always seem to be the ones who attract the most ladies and have the most success, at least they did until the Dream Team [American] basketball team took over.”
During his own bid for a gold medal, he said, he stayed celibate. “Sex depletes the testosterone level,” he explained. “So athletes who need a bit of anger, a bit of tension, to perform at their best, shouldn’t have sex, at least not the night before. If you’re laid-back, you can do what you like. But it wasn’t for me.” Bill Shankly, the celebrated manager of Liverpool FC in the 1960s and early 1970s, would have approved. His protégé Ian St John once told me: “Shanks used to tell us to wear boxing gloves in bed on the night before a game. And if that didn’t work, to send the wife to her mother’s.”
Whatever, it’s not just the sex and booze and rock’n’roll that attracts athletes to life in the Olympic village, but the camaraderie, too. And it was ever thus. There are few points of comparison between London 2012 and London 1948, but the rapport between competitors is one of them. Not that there was then any such thing as an Olympic village. There were around 4,000 competitors from 59 nations, some of whom stayed at RAF Uxbridge, some at an Army camp in Richmond Park, and others at secondary schools in Harrow and Pinner, while the Jamaican team, for some reason, was billeted in private houses in Wembley.
Those were the so-called “Austerity Olympics”, but that doesn’t mean that there were no freebies. According to Janie Hampton, author of the meticulously researched The Austerity Olympics (Aurum), every man in Team GB, as it was mercifully not yet known, got a pair of white Y-fronts, courtesy of gents’ outfitters Coopers, one of the sponsors. The women in the British team, however, had to use clothing coupons to get their kit.
Male and female competitors were kept apart, and in any case women were outnumbered nine to one. Within the New Zealand team, Ngaire Lane, a backstroke swimmer, was merely outnumbered six to one. There was her, and six men, and she told Hampton that she would not have been allowed to travel to London had she not found herself a middle-aged chaperone. A far cry indeed from 100,000 free condoms.
By Brian Viner http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport
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