Stories from behind the scenes in the Olympic Village *H&H Plus*

  • Staying in the Olympic Village is a unique experience, with opportunities to meet – and embarrass yourself in front of – athletes from every sport and nation, as riders tell Catherine Austen

    On one hand, it’s the most exclusive members’ club in the world: you can’t buy your way in, you are selected on merit alone and it is colour, race and privilege-blind. On the other, it probably doubles a student hall of residence, its facilities are not luxurious, and those lucky enough to stay there may well have to share a room. Those are the dichotomies of the Olympic Village – the official accommodation for athletes of all sports during the Olympic Games.

    With thousands of the world’s best athletes, all primed to achieve the peak performances of their careers, under one roof, the Village must be a heady hive of tangible energy.

    “It’s hard to describe because it’s unique,” says Swedish event rider Ludwig Svennerstål, who stayed in the Village during the London and Rio Olympics. “The closest thing I can compare it to is a summer camp for teenagers.”

    “It has a buzzing atmosphere – you can feel the tension,” says Andrew Nicholson, who attended seven Olympics between 1984 and 2012.

    Equestrian athletes don’t always stay in the Village, often due to the distance of the horse park from the central hub of the Games, and it was only during his first Olympics – Los Angeles – and his most recent, London, that Andrew spent the duration of the competition there. He revelled in both occasions, however.

    “In LA it was a real eye-opener to see how ‘proper’ athletes trained,” says Andrew with a laugh. “We were in an apartment with the New Zealand boxers and wrestlers. I think they were as surprised by us as we were by them!”

    Andrew and Mark Todd took full advantage of their first Olympics, running round the athletics track, and tackling the hurdles and the high jump. “Mark was quite impressive at those, to be fair,” jokes Andrew.

    William Fox-Pitt has spent four of his five Olympics staying in the Village – in 2008 the horse events were in Hong Kong, not Beijing where the other sports took place.

    “The Olympics is an incredible lifetime experience, and each time you go you think it will be your last, so I think you should live it and enjoy it – you miss out if you don’t buy into the whole thing,” he says. “Being in the Village makes you feel as though you are properly part of Team GB – representing your whole country as an athlete. The Olympics are so much broader than just ‘your’ sport and staying in the Village makes you feel like you belong.”

    Richard Davison has ridden at four Olympics and acted as captain for the dressage team at a fifth. He spent part of each of those four Games in the Village, and can appreciate the arguments against riders staying in them.

    “I definitely encourage every equestrian chef de mission and the British Olympic Association (BOA) that, for the duration of the competing period, riders are better off being close to the horse park, which can be a very long way from the Village,” he says.

    It is about optimising performance, he says. The noise and the 24hr footfall through the Village of athletes from all time-zones with differing schedules is distracting.

    He points out: “By and large equestrian athletes are older than, say, track and field athletes, and most people accept that the older you get, the more particular and fragile your sleep patterns become. We all know the importance of sleep for brain cognition and general alertness.”

    Andrew Hoy is another for whom Los Angeles in 1984 was the first of many Olympics – seven to date – and he has stayed in the Village for at least part of all of them.

    “1984 was a huge education for me,” he says. “It was a 25-minute walk from where we slept to the dining hall, and another 25 minutes from there to the shuttle buses, and then it took between 45 minutes and an hour to drive to the venue. The logistics of planning the nearly three-hour process from getting out of bed to getting to the venue were exhausting.”

    That process and those logistics have improved over the years, and although there can be downsides to staying in the Village, such as sharing a room, Andrew likes the fact that it is a “bubble” and he can focus entirely on what he is there to achieve.

    Carl Hester’s five Olympics stretch from Barcelona in 1992 to Rio 2016. “We didn’t stay in the Village in Sydney in 2000, and it could have been a normal show as a result,” he says. “In Atlanta, everyone was allowed to do their own thing, and a lot of people decided they didn’t want to stay in the Village. The Brits didn’t do very well there, and after that it was decided that we had to be together as a team, wherever we were.”

    In Athens the dressage riders spent half their time in the Village and half in a rented house, which Carl describes as “the perfect mix”, and in London, they stayed in a hotel very close to Greenwich Park.

    “That was actually great fun in a different way,” he says. “We were so focused on doing well in London that we wanted to be right next to the venue, and when we won, it was complete euphoria.”

    It is inevitable that your first Olympics makes the most dramatic impact on you, and Carl has vivid memories of Barcelona in 1992.

    “The Village was on a beach, and the whole thing felt a bit like a holiday,” he says. “Because it was my first Games, I was completely overexcited about the whole thing, spotting the superstars of the sporting world walking past.”

    He remembers queuing for the phone box, and banging on the door when the occupant had been in there for too long. “Steffi Graf put her head out and glared at me – I nearly fell over backwards!”

    A sporting god

    Every rider H&H spoke to recalled encounters with sporting superheroes. In Los Angeles, Andrew Nicholson had lunch on the same table as Carl Lewis, who won four track and field gold medals at that Games. William Fox-Pitt chatted to tennis’s golden boy Andy Murray at London. Usain Bolt apparently asked for Ludwig’s autograph thinking he was someone else…

    Jonty Evans represented Ireland in eventing at Rio in 2016, and had his own brush with a sporting god.

    “I was having dinner in the food hall in the Athletes’ Village and there was a tap on my shoulder,” he says. “This girl was there, muscles coming out of every bit of her, and I thought, ‘I really should know who you are.’

    “She wanted to swap pins, but I didn’t have any Irish pins with me. She was really insistent, I was hungry, so I told her to go away. Two days later I realised it was Venus Williams.”

    The food hall is the central compass point around which the Village pivots. “It’s vast, open pretty much 24/7 and serves anything and everything that you could wish for,” explains Andrew Nicholson. “In London, the biggest queues were for McDonald’s – but there were a lot of officials staying in the Village, so it wasn’t just athletes.”

    In Rio, dressage riders Lyndal Oatley – who rides for Australia – and her husband, Sweden’s Patrik Kittel, had rooms at opposite ends of the Olympic Village, but used to meet in McDonald’s for “date night”. Incidentally, Ludwig Svennerstål was Patrik’s room-mate in Rio: “He is very funny for a dressage rider,” quips Ludwig.

    It is, of course, a very serious thing, being an Olympic athlete, and no one really admits (on the record) to partying. However, a glance at Nick Skelton’s autobiography reveals that the showjumpers in past years took the whole thing with a pinch of salt. There were practical jokes aplenty – John Whitaker replaced the contents of Geoff Billington’s tube of suncream with haemorrhoid ointment and then shoe polish – the odd inadvertent trip to a bar which turned out to be a lap-dancing club, and so on.

    In Seoul in 1988, the team comprised Nick, David Broome, Michael Whitaker and Graham Fletcher.

    Nick says: “There was a communal launderette in the apartment building, where we had to do our own washing. We could tell that Fletch wasn’t domesticated because he didn’t know you had to put washing powder in an automatic washing machine. He thought that an automatic washing machine was that automatic it would put powder in itself.

    “And we turned heads one day when we walked into the village through the airport-type security scanners as Michael was carrying 200 Silk Cut and Fletch was toting a case of Carlsberg under each arm. Not exactly typical Olympic athletes!”

    Those were the days. Now riders are as focused and as immaculately prepared as the swimmers, rowers and runners – even if Mark Todd and Andrew Hoy struggled to convince young officials in London that, despite being double the age of some of their counterparts, they were indeed Olympic athletes.

    As Ludwig says, perhaps a touch tongue-in-cheek, “At the same time as you are at ‘summer camp’, you are also preparing for the biggest event of your life, so I didn’t really notice anyone else in the Village – except for the Swedish beach volleyball team, who kept knocking on my door in the middle of the night – every night.”

    Oh Ludwig, how disappointed they must have been when that door remained firmly bolted.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 6 August 2020