LONDON -- The last time the Olympics were held here, in 1948, this city was ravaged by World War II, and there wasn’t enough money to build an Athletes village, so 4,000 competitors were housed in nurses’ hostels, school dorms and Royal Air Force camps. British athletes had their food rationed, the Americans traveled with their own food and Denmark donated 160,000 eggs.
The Austerity Games is how the 1948 Olympics came to be known.
Sixty-four years later, there is nothing austere about the London athletes village. Although it is surrounded by 12-foot security fences and lacks the charm of the English countryside — no duck ponds, old churches or ivy-covered cottages — it does have a pub (alcohol-free), hair salon, florist, dry cleaner and just about everything 10,000 Olympians and 7,000 coaches and officials could need during the next three weeks.
Well, almost everything, anyway.
The 2,800 apartments are not air conditioned (a bit of an issue as temperatures reached 85 degrees Wednesday). And the bedrooms look more like college dorm rooms than luxury hotel suites — twin beds adjustable to seven feet for the tallest of the Olympians, colorful Olympic-themed bedspreads to take home as souvenirs, two nightstands, a wardrobe, a pair of sofas, a laundry bag, flat-screen TV and a bathroom.
Once the athletes leave their rooms, the pampering begins.
A 5,000-seat dining hall is open 24 hours and features five world stations — Best of Britain, Europe, Americas and Mediterranean, Asian, and Afro-Caribbean. They serve everything from duck with ginger to jerk-spiced pumpkin to cheeseburgers. There are special stations for Halal, Kosher, low-salt and allergen-free diets. By the end of the Games, the dining hall will have served an estimated 330 tons of fruits and vegetables, 10 tons of meat, 19 tons of eggs and 232 tons of potatoes.
Oh, yes, and there is a McDonald’s for those who need a french fries fix.
Kenyan javelin thrower Julius Yego said the food has been “so delicious.’’ He was particularly impressed with the githeri, a traditional Kenyan corn and bean dish among the dining hall selections.
“The village is a very special place,’’ Yego said. “It is a place where champions meet and exchange ideas.’’
Of all the superstars in the village, there is only one Yego is dying to meet: Norwegian javelin thrower Andreas Thorkildsen. “He’s my hero, my role model,’’ Yego said.
At night, Olympians can lounge at The Globe, a pub-like gathering spot that has everything but alcoholic drinks. It has pool tables, karaoke and a jukebox. There is a well-equipped game room, where athletes are said to compete as if medals were on the line.
Of course, there is a gym. A huge gym. Fifty treadmills. These are, after all, the world’s finest athletes.
There is a florist, open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., which is expected to get really busy once the Games begin on Friday. A staff of 10 florists was hired to handle the rush. British heptathlete Jess Ennis, she of the six-pack abs and fashion model face, is already receiving a fair share of bouquets from admirers and well-wishers.
There is a non-denominational prayer room, for athletes who seek divine help.
And there is a hair and nail salon, offering athletes complimentary haircuts, coloring, facials, makeovers, and flag nail art, courtesy of sponsor Procter & Gamble. All 204 national flags are available for the nails. So far, the most-requested nail choice is the Union Jack.
Cuban boxer Julio Cesar was among the athletes who visited the salon Wednesday. He had his hair trimmed and is coming back Thursday to have his eyebrows shaped. After he was done, he posed for a photo with hair stylist “Bunny,’’ who is the salon’s afro specialist. Her most popular request is Olympic rings shaved into male athletes’ hairdos.
“I want to look real nice for the Opening Ceremonies,’’ Cesar said, smiling. “This is very exciting for all of us, and the village is part of the whole experience. They have everything here you could imagine, so I am taking advantage.’’
The village is 11 blocks around and sits in the middle of Olympic Park on the East End of London. The 1.9 million square-foot Westfield Stratford City Shopping Mall, largest urban mall in Europe, is adjacent to the village, giving athletes yet another option in their free time. Streams of athletes were seen Wednesday walking through the village security gates carrying shopping bags.
Each day this week the village hosts delegation Welcome Ceremonies, mini-Opening Ceremonies in which each delegation has its anthem played, flag raised and is treated to a music and dance show featuring Queen’s We Are the Champions and Bicycle Race. Athletes are then escorted down a red carpet with the “Welcome’’ written in hundreds of languages.
Among the countries which had their welcome ceremonies Wednesday: China, Italy, Suriname, Kenya, Congo, Puerto Rico, Romania, Zambia and Canada. Athletes posed together for photos, tall and short, wide and thin, black and white. Two Kenyan track coaches rushed over to get a photo with 7-foot former Heat center Wang Zhizhi of China.
“It’s incredible being in this village every day,’’ said Anabelle Morley, a member of the ceremony cast. “I feel like I’m traveling the world in 10 days. It’s amazing to be so close to so many athletes. The other day we welcomed New Zealand and they started doing the Haka (a traditional war cry dance) and that was so exciting to see up close.’’
But the party won’t really begin until athletes are done competing in their events. Then, and only then can they let loose, and when they do, word is things get pretty wild in the village. That explains why 120,000 condoms are being distributed.
“Things are still pretty subdued because everyone is focusing, training, resting,” said Erison Hurtault, a 400-meter runner competing in his second Olympics for Dominica. “Once people are done competing, the mood in the village changes.’’
Barcelona double gold-medalist U.S. swimmer Nelson Diebel once said: “It’s a two-week private party for thousands of hard bodies. It’s really a question of ‘which flavor you like?’ ’’