NEWS

Athletes in global village at foot of Mount Parnitha

It was an ordinary afternoon at the Olympic athletes’ village, which meant some extraordinary happenings were under way. An Iraqi boxer, a recent arrival, grinned broadly about his improbable trip to Greece. A delegation from Ghana assembled for a quick picture beneath their flag. And minutes later, to the sweet sound of Marvin Gaye’s «Let’s Get It On,» dozens of US Olympians strolled past for a welcoming ceremony. The Olympics, in theory, unite the world’s nations; the athletes’ village, home to 17,000 Olympians from scores of countries, achieves the goal. Side by side in 336 buildings at the foot of Mount Parnitha, the athletes share experiences both memorable and mundane – swapping stories in the 24-hour cafeteria, or simply shopping for CDs. «The village is awesome, incredible,» said US softball outfielder Laura Berg. «I’m having a great time. All the different flags are up, and it’s great to talk with the different athletes from the different countries.» Her Olympic teammate, high jumper Jamie Nieto, took a break from bopping to Motown to second that emotion. «I just arrived today, and I already feel electrified,” Nieto said. “I feel it’s a blessing to be here.» The village is where a weightlifter from Kyrgyzstan can find the perfect pair of sunglasses, where a half-dozen Swiss athletes can hang out and people-watch an endless parade of guests from across the globe. Athletes seeking a workout can visit the village sports complex with its pool, track and tennis court. «To me, to be here is a big thing,” said Iraqi boxer Najah Salah Ali, 24, a wide grin spread across his face.”I’m so excited to be here.» Early reviews of the food were positive. «Great – lots of fruit and salad,» said Berg. «But I’m not picky. I’m willing to try anything.» Obviously, site security is intense. The village’s four-lane approach road, closed to normal traffic, holds checkpoints manned by armed authorities. In the village parking lot, a team of soldiers inspects vehicles with the intensity of archaeologists on a dig. The US women’s soccer team found the security «omnipresent but not overbearing,» with a soldier stationed right outside their apartment complex, according to a USOC website report. The three- and four-story apartment complexes, in Spartan shades of white, gray and brown, hold expansive porches that let the athletes survey the surroundings. Already different countries have their pride on display: «Czech Olympic Team» announces one banner, while the Japanese flag flutters in the soft wind from a nearby building. The cross-cultural scene is immediately evident to visitors, who are greeted by flags from around the world. On a single afternoon, flag-raising ceremonies were held for Zambia, Gabon, Ghana and the USA. Just outside the gate to the village, the athletes are honored in artwork: A sculpture of a discus thrower joined likenesses of a weightlifter, a basketball player and a gymnast. The area serves as a shopping mall for the athletes, where they can get a haircut, pick up Athens souvenirs, or drop off their dry cleaning. Buck Wessel, leader of the US judo team, was impressed by the scene. «New, massive, beautiful, very exciting,» he said after checking out the accommodation. It’s not all exciting. With some athletes set to spend three weeks in the village, there’s a store that provides the essentials for day-to-day life: detergent, shampoo, Odor Eaters for those funky sneakers. Store workers alternately stock the shelves and keep an eye out for recognizable athletes wandering in and out of the air-conditioned building. «It’s a huge buzz working here,» confessed Katie Gauld, one of the volunteer employees.