Inside the Olympic Village
Credit: Illustration by John Mattos

The Village can be a crushingly lonely place, as well. "My roommates in Montreal called me 'commie fag,'" recalls diver and five-time medalist Greg Louganis of the summer of 1976. He was 16 at the time, years younger than the other American divers living together in a small two-bedroom suite. The Soviet divers, on the other hand, were closer to his age, and despite Cold War taboos, he preferred hanging out with them. "We ran around the Village," says Louganis, "going to the discotheque and movies and shopping and doing silly kid stuff." Eventually, Louganis staged a nonpolitical defection. After his events ended, he crashed on the Russians' floor. "I was underage," says Louganis, "but they had Russian champagne and vodka and caviar. That was our diet."

Some roommates seem destined to derail any hopes their cohorts have of winning a medal. After skating a clean and satisfying short program at the Calgary Games in 1988, Paul Wylie had a quiet dinner with his parents. "I got back to the dorms at the university around 11," he says, "and I thought that was pretty late." His roommate, Christopher Bowman, hadn't returned yet. "He came in at 2 or 3 a.m. every night," says Brian Boitano, that year's gold medalist. "Paul was always telling him, 'Christopher, we have to skate at seven in the morning. Go the fuck to sleep!'" At around 5 a.m., Bowman burst into the room. "He jumped up on my bed," says Wylie, "and started screaming, 'Molly Hatchet! Molly Hatchet! Molly Hatchet!'" Bowman jumped higher and harder, rocking out on air guitar. Then, says Wylie, he recounted, in stunning details, the encounter he'd just had with a female journalist. "I'm pretty sure he was on something," Wylie says of Bowman. "He would not let me go back to sleep."

The pleasures of rooming with Bowman, who died of an overdose in a Los Angeles motel 20 years later, weren't limited to late-night antics. "He spent the entire day of the long program watching 'Full Metal Jacket,'" says Wylie. "It was a downer." As the Calgary Games wound down, Bowman became increasingly mercurial. "Chris would hang for about 45 minutes, tell jokes, and have a great time. And then, poof! He was gone. Nobody really knows where he ever went."

Athletes construct their own bubbles of solitude within the greater bubble of the Village. Twelve years after being shunned by his roommates in Montreal, Louganis went to Seoul as perhaps the world's top Olympian. Despite all the attention, all the honors, all the expectations, he found himself isolated again – this time with a secret.

Six months before the Games, Louganis had been diagnosed with HIV. To keep his secret safe, his coach, Ron O'Brien, smuggled his medications into South Korea so that the AZT pills Louganis needed every four hours couldn't be traced to the diver. "Nobody could have ever known I was HIV positive," says Louganis. "I wouldn't have been allowed in that country." He won two golds in Seoul but smacked his head on a springboard during a qualifying dive. "I heard this big, hollow thud," he later said, "and then I found myself in the water. I wanted to hold the blood in." Even injured, he kept his secret.

Other athletes seek out the solitude of the Village. "I found it nice knowing I'd be able to go somewhere I wouldn't be pursued by the public," says Eric Heiden, "or by the press. I could be in the Village and be gone, gathering my thoughts for the next race. I liked the seclusion." In Lake Placid in 1980, Heiden lived in a trailer while he racked up five gold medals. "That Village was being designed to become a prison," he says. "Not a very high-security prison, but a prison."

Meanwhile, pairs figure skater Tai Babilonia's 1980 Games ended prematurely when her partner was injured. "We had to withdraw," she says. And how did she deal with that disappointment? "I became an Eric Heiden groupie," she says. "I went to all his events because Eric was so adorable, so handsome, so talented. It was just the natural thing to do. Each time he would win, they'd have a party at his trailer. He'd go out, win another one. We'd go back and celebrate."

But even while the competition goes on, the otherness that the Village provides, the exclusivity, has a way of turning up the love for every Olympian. "I remember the first time I left the Village," says Barrett, a nonmedalist swimmer who suddenly found himself being treated like an international luminary. "People walked up and asked for my autograph," he says. "They didn't know who I was, but it was mind-blowing." After years of training in obscurity, he was suddenly worth protecting at the highest level. Fans handed him a pen and waited for Barrett to sign his name. And they remained waiting out there, for Barrett and thousands of others, for the duration of those Games – they'll be there for every Olympic Games.

They'll be waiting in London this month and in Sochi in two years and just beyond the boundaries of Rio's rainforest-inspired bubble in 2016. "It's all because you're behind those gates," says Barrett. "It's the most special, overwhelming place for any athlete. There's nothing in the world like being part of that Village."

HOWIE KAHN & ALEX FRENCH