It’s coming up to dinner time in the Olympic Village, and the athletes are getting peckish.
A line of Chinese, South African and Kazakh Olympians forms outside the London 2012 athletes-only dining hall, a temporary cafeteria the size of a small airport, where food is free. Stacked on many a plate inside are skewers of grilled shrimp.
Reporters are banned from the athletes’ village; I’m the stealth guest of one of its 16,000 or so occupants. Post-games, the 2,818 kitchenless apartments will be turned into homes by owners Delancey Estates Plc and Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Co., who spent 557 million pounds ($872 million) buying the village last year.
For now, the place is a sheltered bubble -- a classless, cashless, and crimeless society. It feels like a Communist Utopia, untainted by money, yet strangely sterile.
The 24-hour, 5,000-seat food court, with its whirring generators, is like a giant warehouse. There are open crates of oranges, bananas and apples everywhere, as well as counters of dried fruit and nuts, sliced pineapple, and crudites. Cuisines are divided up by geographical origin.
There’s fine-looking cheese and roast beef at the British counter, bland-looking pizza and pasta at the Italian stall, and coriander rice with curry coconut vegetables at the halal booth, where female staff wear headscarves.
The only branded food is from Games sponsor McDonald’s Corp. Champion sprinter Usain Bolt gets his chicken nuggets here. Drinks are provided by sponsor Coca-Cola Co. in giant dispensers offering Coke and affiliated beverages only.
Celebration Avenue, the main drag, is ringed by apartment blocks that look like housing projects. Most balconies are festooned with national flags.
Alongside the avenue is Victory Park, a vast lawn with giant Olympic rings in the middle. Athletes jog past; a woman in a red sports bra power-walks.
In the state-of-the-art fitness center, which will later be a school, rows of contestants train on treadmills provided by Technogym SpA, the official Olympic supplier since 2000, and on to its fifth games. They watch the sports on screens embedded in the equipment, which they can also use for e-mails or social media. I spot a petite Japanese woman laboring a couple of spots away from a great big Dane, so tall he might as well be a tree.
Further along, a blond giant with “Deutschland” on his track suit pulls on an extensible cable, another of the 750 Technogym machines supplied. His chest is as square and flat as a dicing board; he must be a volleyball or handball player, I’m told.
A couple of dark, burly guys in Lycra shorts head out. I mistake them for hangers-on; they’re actually shotput and discus Olympians from my home country, Iran, personal trainers tell me.
The village’s paved central piazza is dotted with flags and movable trees in open wooden boxes. Nearby is a pop-up pub called the Globe. On the fake lawn outside, a row of athletes in deck chairs soaks up the late-afternoon sun, while two Austrians laugh heartily as their tower of wooden Jenga blocks collapses.
Crammed inside are pool tables, video games, table soccer and plasma screens tuned into the sporting action, with comfortable fake-leather armchairs for lounging. Bars serve soft drinks only, and there’s a glass-walled music studio, the Beat Lab, that’s empty at this hour.
At the small Internet point, a trio of yellow-jacketed Ethiopian athletes huddles around a computer as a ponytailed Chinese female waits her turn. Her track suit is mysteriously marked “Islamic Republic of Iran.”
On the way out, past a security checkpoint, is the village’s outer rim, where services are paid for. There are ATMs, a mini-supermarket, a florist, a post office, and a dry cleaner.
A Procter & Gamble Co. beauty salon offers athletes free facials, head rubs, or red-carpet makeovers. This is where the U.K.’s women rowers got their hair done after winning gold, and where London Mayor Boris Johnson got a pre-Games manicure.
Olympians can also get their national flag painted onto their nails; the cheery young man at reception has Union Jacks on his. He shows me a sheet with all the flag designs, and says the Kiribati and American Samoa flags are hardest to execute.
I came into the Olympic Village looking, among other things, for signs of the rumored after-hours parties I’d read about in the papers. Heading out, I’m not so sure what to believe. This is an extremely serious, focused bunch, and I’ve sensed no sexual tension in the air. With days to go until the end of the Games, the stakes are simply too high.
Muse highlights include: Mark Beech on rock music and Ryan Sutton on New York dining.
(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)