Inside the Olympic Village
Credit: Illustration by John Mattos
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has published an official 342-page manual with the sole function of specifying every detail of the design and construction of the Olympic Village – from the number of athletes to a bathroom (four), to the amount of hanging space per closet (60 centimeters), to the number of locking drawers (two), to where live ammunition should be stored (somewhere far away from the rifles). And, of course, the IOC devotes a page to articulating the Village mission: "The Olympic Village caters to the athletes' needs by creating a comfortable environment to facilitate the mental and physical preparation for participation in the Olympic Games free from disturbance from the outside world."

It says nothing about internal disturbances. It makes no mention, for example, of all-night house parties, maniacal roommates, or hormone-fueled gropefests. "It was like Disneyland minus the rides and with far more hard bodies," says Amy Van Dyken, an American swimmer and six-time gold medalist, who competed in Sydney in 2000 and in Atlanta in 1996.

"You walk out of your dorm and into the quad," says swimmer Cullen Jones, "and there are flags everywhere. You can see them hanging from the windows: That's the Brazilian building, that's the British building." Beneath the flags – excessive numbers of flags are also mandated by the Olympic charter – exists a fully functional city where everything is on the house. There are florists and dry cleaners and a pharmacy, a post office, a travel agent, and a multifaith prayer center.

Athletes can go to the spa for lavender wraps or a Thai massage, scarf a burger and a Coke at the Village McDonald's, or play a game of foosball. There's a nightclub, where no alcohol is served, as well as a listening lounge with soft chairs and neutral lighting and a substantial music library. The Village at the Atlanta Games had a laser-tag "stadium," where one Ecuadoran athlete spent so much time he was reported missing. There are sightseeing excursions and postings for special field trips.

At the Atlanta Games, gold-medal swimmer Amanda Beard answered a bulletin-board post and wound up escorting Vice President Al Gore and his family to a volleyball game. In Barcelona, free bikes were available so athletes could pedal to an Olympians-only beach, where some of the world's top female athletes spent their free days sunbathing topless.

Not all Olympic Villages are created equal. From the more than two dozen former and current Olympians interviewed for this story, a few common truths emerged: Barcelona (1992) was, predictably, a blast; Turin (2006) was remembered mostly for unfinished housing and frozen mud. Athens flew every national flag except the American one, for security reasons, and Beijing is universally referred to as the "no-fun Games."

The American teams in Beijing were warned not to drink the water. In Mexico City, too. In Atlanta, the American women's swim team was instructed to avoid touching the Chinese swimmers, who were so suspiciously brawny that the U.S. team wiped down toilet seats before sitting in order to avoid contact with topical steroids. Each Olympic Village has some common scenes. Enterprising Cubans sell boxes of cigars for U.S. dollars. At the Village medical center, athletes from less-developed countries take advantage of free dental surgery, MRIs, and CAT scans. Bass bumps in the Cuban house 24 hours a day; the Irish house, at least at the Beijing Games, was like a monastery. In terms of high-visibility partying, the Australians, Canadians, and Americans are always favored medalists – no one interviewed recalled throwing down with the Bulgarian divers or being overwhelmed by a rowdy delegation of Egyptian wrestlers – but it could be that they just make the most noise.

A social hierarchy exists in the Village. At the bottom are the "Olympic tourists," those athletes who don't have a realistic chance of winning a medal. "Some people see the Olympic Games as a nice trip, an all-you-can-eat buffet, a vacation with great front-row tickets to watch some of the real competitors," says swimmer Gary Hall Jr., a 10-time medalist. And then there are the elite: the ones who throw a javelin like something out of Homer or push a sled so fast that people will actually travel to watch them push a sled.

A few of the highest-profile athletes choose not to live in the Village at all, while others get hotel rooms after they compete so they can party without being babysat by the IOC. Bode Miller famously lived in a Winnebago trailer in Turin. In Athens, the so-called Dream Team (Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, etc.) bunked on the Queen Mary 2 in Athens harbor – accommodations that seem out of scale with their bronze-medal performance.

Others leave because they're simply too popular to stay. In Los Angeles in 1984, American track megastar Carl Lewis, who'd go on to win four golds, lasted all of three hours in the Village. He tried to unpack his cleats, but there'd be a knock at the door. He'd sit down on the bed, another knock. "I signed about 200 autographs," says Lewis. "Other athletes kept coming to my room, and it just wasn't possible to stay. I had to find a house to rent." Lewis never attempted to stay in the Village again. "By my third Olympics, in Barcelona," he says, "I had some money and rented three homes. Flew my family out. Got a chef. The whole nine yards."

Securing quiet, comfortable, drama-free accommodations is all many Olympians aspire to – a place to sleep that won't impede their athletic performance. They have dedicated – sacrificed, really – most of their lives to the pursuit of athletic excellence. They have suffered through predawn workouts, freezing-cold water, heat stroke, muscle cramps, and agonizing injury. They've never been to a prom or a keg party or almost anywhere youthful abandon flourishes. They've abstained from refined sugars, sleepovers, and teenage sloth. They have consumed 9,000 calories a day in bland, boiled proteins and supplemented it all with so much creatine, glutamine, and nutritional powder that their digestive tracts gush like waterslides.

But once their last event is over, they're free – truly, wantonly free. "The Olympic Village begins with a rather serious tone because everybody there has a job to do," says swimming icon John Naber, who won five Olympic medals. "But every day, 10 percent of the athletes complete their obligations, and then they're ready to party. So by the end of the third day, 20 percent of the Village is having fun. At the end of the sixth day, 50 percent of the Village is having fun. And the parties get louder and louder and louder and louder."