The long colorful line snaked around the plaza in the Olympic Athletes Village on Thursday afternoon, athletes of all shapes and sizes from Egypt, Nambia, Cuba, Iran, the Netherlands, Japan, Saint Lucia, Poland, Morocco, Russia and the United States, all in line for the most coveted food in the village — McDonald’s.
These world-class athletes might be in fantastic shape, but they are not limiting their diet to veggies, fish and grilled chicken. The village cafeteria offers Asian food, Brazilian food and basic American and European fare, but athletes would rather wait in line and load up on free (yes, free) Big Macs, fries, McFlurries and Chicken McNuggets, especially when they’re done competing.
The McCafe was so overwhelmed early in the Games that they put a 20-item limit on orders, as some athletes were ordering as many as 30 and 40 burgers for their teams.
“They have the same food every day in the cafeteria, and the quality and variety are not that good, to be honest, so we turn to junk food, which tastes much better,” said Mohamed Zeyada, an equestrian athlete from Egypt. “I have been going to McDonald’s at least once a day since Aug. 10. I make orders for our whole team.”
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William Collazo, a Cuban runner who competes in the 1,600-meter relay Friday morning, waited in line nearly 45 minutes for a Big Mac and McFlurry. He said he got bored with the cafeteria food — which also is free, as are all the other services available in the village — so he decided to change things up. “Most of the time I have been eating the healthier food, but the McDonald’s offers some variety,” he said.
The McDonald’s sits in the main plaza area of the village, a mini-city that is home to 18,000 athletes, coaches and officials during these 17 days. There are 31 high-rise apartment buildings, each 17 stories high. Athletes’ rooms are hardly luxurious. They feature two twin beds, a small seating area, a canvas wardrobe, two bean-bag chairs and a mirror. Bathrooms are shared.
Most of the national delegations decorate their balconies with flags and large banners. Italy, Australia, Germany, and Brazil have huge signage on their buildings. Another building has banners for Turkey, Portugal and Azerbaijan. Two delegations that have no flags or banners are the United States and Israel, for security reasons.
The Israeli team is particularly careful, considering that 11 of their team members were taken hostage and murdered by terrorists in the village at the 1972 Munich Olympics. For the first time since that tragedy, after four decades of lobbying from the families of the victims, there is a memorial in the Olympic Village. It includes two stones from Ancient Olympia in Greece and reads: “We will always remember you forever in our hearts.”
Athletes have all of their basic needs covered in the village. There is a bank, a post office, a ticket counter, a large gym, an Olympic souvenir store, a florist (Russians buy the most flowers) and a general store that sells toiletries, electrical plug converters and every type of snack chip imaginable — Cheetos Asado, Fandangos Asado, Lays Picanha, Ruffles Churrasco and Baconzitos.
The most popular spot — other than the McDonald’s — is the P&G Beauty Salon (“Salao de Beleza”), which is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. As of Thursday, more than 2,000 athletes had stopped by for haircuts, braids, ribbon weaves, shaves, makeup and manicures. The manicurists have learned to paint all the flags and every variety of Olympic rings on their clients’ nails.
Twenty-seven of the flag bearers showed up on the day of the Opening Ceremonies to get coifed. Celebrity stylist Gabriel “El Mago” Samra, a Venezuelan whose salon is on Coral Way in Miami, is the lead stylist at the Olympians’ salon, and there are typically between 10 to 12 stylists working at a time to handle the load.
Among the athletes who have visited the salon: Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, Spanish basketball player Rudy Fernandez, U.S. basketball player Elena Delle Donne, and the entire Argentine rugby team.
At the far end of the village common area sits a beach volleyball court, which features matches nobody will ever see on NBC. But they are worthy of an audience, and they embody all that is still right about the Olympics. Male and female athletes, tall and short, thin and thick, all religions, in their national team gear, speaking different languages and playing pickup volleyball together.
No gold, silver or bronze medals are awarded at the end of those matches. Instead, the prizes are peace, friendship and sportsmanship.