Global Village

It is one of the most iconic and certainly most important traditions of the Olympics: the Olympic Village. 17000 athletes, coaches and other team staff members will live at Rio’s village, which far more resembles a city in it’s own right than a village. While the sheer numbers are astonishing, the more important aspect is the effect it will have on its inhabitants, on spreading the Olympic values and creating bonds as well as memories that will both continue for much longer than these seventeen days.

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Olympic Village – London 2012

While the importance of Olympic Villages cannot be denied, they’ve come a long way to get to that point. In the first three decades of the modern Games, there were no official Olympic Villages, and little is known about how the teams and individual competitors organized their accommodation. Sometimes teams would live aboard the ship that just brought them across the ocean, as did the US in Stockholm 1912. Others were dependent on hotel bookings, if they could still afford that after the often expensive travel, or the hospitality of locals. It wasn’t until 1924 that the first village was organised, consisting of several barracks with conditions that were even at the time quite below standard. The history of the village took a new turn when Los Angeles 1932 and especially Berlin four years later put much more emphasis on a well structured and overall positively impressive environment for the athletes. While the Berlin village, situated in Wustermark, west of Berlin, was undeniably attractive and equipped with state-of-the-art facilities, this ‘positive impression’ was overshadowed by what lay behind the façade. Athletes were constantly under surveillance, their mail searched, any criticism of the Nazi regime suppressed. And at the same time as the Games of Berlin were taking place, the regime began constructing a camp of a different nature, close to the city of Weimar. It was called Buchenwald…

36 years later, the organizers of the Munich Olympics had the aim of showing a different, a friendly and welcoming (West-)Germany. They wanted the grand festival of sport to be ‘cheerful Games’ (‘heitere Spiele’). And this was included in planning the Olympic Village, right next to the Olympic Park. No military, no police, no security personnel at all were visible inside the village. There were police officers on duty, but they did wear light blue suits and white hats instead of uniform, and they were unarmed. The fence around the village proved to be no obstacle for athletes coming home late at night. And in the night of September the 5th, it proved to be no obstacle for a group of Palestinian terrorists. A day later, 11 Israeli team members, three terrorists and one German police officer were dead. And so were the ‘cheerful Games’…

Since then the Olympic Village has always been somewhere between high-security area and a friendly open space for the athletes from around the world. Even people like personal coaches have some difficulties in gaining access, unless they are accredited as official national team coaches by their NOC. On the day before the Opening Ceremony of the 2004 Games in Athens, I met the coach of a German judoka on the bus shuttle from the airport. He told me about how he was struggling to meet his athlete before her competition, as he was not allowed inside the village or the training area and she had little time to leave the village. A few days later that judoka won the Olympic gold medal.

But, here we are now, five days away from the largest gathering of the ‘youth of the world’ in history. And this year’s ‘Global Village’ is kind of…special… There have been some technical and organizational difficulties lately, let’s call it that way… The Australian team refused to move in at first, citing wires dangling from the bathroom ceiling, concrete in the water pipes, dirt everywhere and most of the electric systems not working. This caused Rio’s mayor to quip that maybe they should put a kangaroo outside the door, so that the Aussies would feel more at home. He later apologized for his remarks during a visit to the Australian team and was promptly presented with a plush kangaroo.

Other teams either called local plumbers, electricians, etc. (the US, Italy, Brazil) or proceeded to fix their rooms themselves (Germany, New Zealand), while Argentina feared a deliberate sabotage attempt by their Brazilian arch-rivals, and the British were perfectly fine with everything, including the food…

But despite all of this, the village continues to be filled with life, lots of happy faces from all corners of the world, and this perhaps most important Olympic tradition will once again bring the world together.

On a side note, a lot has been said and written during past Games about how ‘close’ some of the athletes really get with each other during the Games and, somehow connected to that, the impressive amount of condoms being provided for them. Well, this year the total number is 450 000, three times the amount provided in London 2012. That’s 42 condoms per athlete. Quite ‘olympic’ dimensions, bearing in mind that many athletes do not stay for the entire duration of the Games, many will not have that much use for them before their competition, and it’s 42 for each individual athlete, and, well, it takes two to tango… On the other hand, I’ve seen less useful Olympic souvenirs to take back home…

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