Saturday 20 January 2018

Modest digs a far cry from excess of Beijing

A general view of a bedspread in the Athlete's village in the Olympic Park in London
A general view of a bedspread in the Athlete's village in the Olympic Park in London

IF ANYTHING sums up the right-on, politically correct, tree-hugging face of the modern Olympics, it is what you find tucked up on the second floor of the 'Village Service Centre.'

'Twenty Twelve', the brilliant spoof television series based on London 2012's organising committee, included one particularly funny episode in which the Muslim community got outraged at the 11th hour when they heard there would be no mosque in the athletes' village.

Suddenly the Arab world was up in arms and threatening a full-blown boycott.

Disaster abated when the organisers hastily produced a mosque, though all they'd actually done was trick around with a heating shaft on the roof of the existing religious centre to make it look like a minaret.

The real London organisers (LOCOG) have already outraged the North Korean women's soccer team by introducing them with the South Korean flag, but no one can accuse them of neglecting every possible religious angle.

Pop into the 'Multi-Faith Centre' in the athletes' village and you find a daily timetable of religious services covering all creeds and none, separate rooms for each disparate worship.

There's Christian, Hindu, Islamic and Jewish services and every day starts and ends with a spot of 'Buddist chanting.'

There's even something here for the a-la-carte Catholics ('informal Christian worship') and the chef de mission's office downstairs has reportedly been decommissioned to facilitate Muslim prayers during the month of Ramadan, which started a week ago.

A bilingual sign, directing those in need of spiritual guidance at this challenging time, sends athletes to the 'centre multiconfessional'.

Sceptics would suggest they just call into the large anti-doping building next door and 'fess up properly. Ten athletes, including the Moroccan gold medal favourite for the women's 1500m, haven't even made it as far as the starting gun after failing pre-Olympic drugs tests.


The next building undoubtedly attracts bigger numbers. The main dining hall is bigger than Croke Park and stocked with every delicacy imaginable.

On the corners of streets named 'Medals Way' and 'Victory Parade' are further kiosks, laden with fruit, yoghurt and muesli cups and healthy snacks like cray-fish salad, all of it free with the flash of your athletes' ID.

The only thing they pay for inside the village are the Olympics 'official' soft drinks, dispensed from vending machines at every turn.

All around are apartment blocks where the world's greatest athletes have set up temporary home, kitted out with identikit bed-linen, neon green furniture and bean-bags on their balconies.

There has been some grumbling about the lack of air-conditioning but that hasn't stopped windows and facades being customised with all the flag-waving triumphalism you'd expect.

The Canadians have grabbed the limelight by installing a gigantic red moose by their front door. Except people keep coming out and whacking into it.

"We need a sign there saying 'athlete down'," quipped someone as yet another took a tumble. Add 'moose-struck' to that interminable list of official Olympic excuses.

You cannot escape the size of the home team's quarters; an entire block with the modest banner 'Team GB -- Our Greatest Team' across the front, fronted by a further wooden complex for their support staff.

The fact that the Brits are located by the 'seaside zone', which includes a park and 'street-food' area that offers more free grub has only added to the sort of bitching that is not exactly in the Olympic spirit.

Red London buses ferry athletes about, and there are even real live bobbies parading the crime-free streets.

Ireland's only quibble is that their quarters front onto the 'Village Plaza' which, for the past week, has hosted the half-hourly very loud and naff welcome ceremonies for each team, complete with flag-raising, court jesters and Freddy Mercury on a loop.

Still, while the Mauritians and Cambodians lucked out by getting the spot nearest to the main dining hall, the Irish are helpfully close to 'The Globe', the non-alcoholic funky central lounge where athletes are offered the sort of distractions unimaginable to those who competed in the 1948 Games when London hosted the first televised Olympics.

Inside it's chill central, stocked with funky furniture, pool tables, Wii stations, table-football machines, iPods built into the coffee tables and a stage for live nightly music.

There's a variety of smaller lounges dotted around the village which include collection points for a UNHCR initiative encouraging athletes to donate their spare gear ('new or used') to refugees.

It is an apposite reminder that not everyone lives this sort of pampered existence -- even if athletes have earned every free towel and morsel they're getting after the challenges they have overcome just to get here.

In truth, and particularly compared to 2008, London's athlete's village is actually relatively modest, like most of 2012's facilities.

The Brits took one look at Beijing's spectacular edifices to vanity and propaganda and wisely decided to go the other direction by concentrating on sustainability.

Yet they've still spent £12bn (and then some) on something which, compared to the 1948 Olympics, is like another planet.

They didn't call that year's Olympics the 'Austerity Games' for nothing.

The '48 Olympics even turned a profit -- £30,000 -- helped by the fact that a lot was begged, borrowed and recycled.

Stopwatches were borrowed from the army, typewriters were hired, equipment was returned to clubs afterwards and the protagonists were housed in army camps and schools.

Athletes had to bring their own towels in '48 and, with rationing still a post-war reality, they were limited to six ounces of meat and half an ounce of bacon per day.

And yet Fanny Blankers-Coen and Co still ran, swam and jumped faster, higher and stronger. Amazing, eh?

Irish Independent

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