Let the games begin

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She was beautiful and blonde and wearing a blue US Olympic team tracksuit.

Fellow Olympians who may have caught sight of the activity from nearby towers would not have been terribly surprised. Wild behaviour is nothing new to the Games, where extraordinary performance has never been limited to the fields of play. Part marketing blitz, part political stagecraft and part ritualised battle, the Olympics are also, at their core, a spectacular physical display: 10,000 examples of the perfect human form, in motion. It’s the reason the original Olympians in ancient Greece competed nude.

The secret of the modern Olympics is that the athlete village, with its tightly packed collection of firm young bodies, 24-hour sports television and all-you-can eat international cuisine, has become the most exclusive VIP club in the world. It’s "a two-week-long private party for thousands of hard-bodies," says Nelson Diebel, an American swimmer who won gold twice in Barcelona. Like a mirage, the village appears in the middle of an exuberant host city for two weeks every two years. Open only to competitors, coaches and trainers, it’s a wonderland of hormones, glycogen and dance mixes.

The free dining hall is open 24/7. Vending machines dispense free soft drinks. Pool halls, cinemas, bowling alleys and discos stay open - and jumping - throughout the night. "It’s like adult Disney World for two weeks," says Christo Doyle, a television executive who was the assistant venue logistics manager for Atlanta’s village in 1996. "In Atlanta there were private concerts with big music stars, a free video arcade and all these ripped athletes riding around on free mountain bikes that BMW had given them."

The latest attraction is free internet service, which Marco Buechel, an alpine ski racer who competes for Liechtenstein, put to good use in Salt Lake City. "You can contact any athlete, even if you don’t know them at all," says Buechel. "They give you a list when you get there. Everybody uses it. I saw this beautiful ski racer, from Greece of all places. She had the most beautiful eyes I had ever seen. I saw her at the village and sent her an e-mail, in English. Her reply was very short: ‘Not good English. Want meet you.’"

According to Buechel, he and the Greek beauty made arrangements to meet soon after. "We tried to talk, which wasn’t very successful," says Buechel, "and then we started to drink, which was much more successful." And? "It was very beautiful," he says. "A beautiful international incident."

An invisible two-caste system of Olympic athletes feeds the randy village dynamic. "The reason there is so much distraction in the village is because there are two kinds of athletes there," says Maurice Greene, the American sprinter who took two golds in Sydney. "You have Olympians and Olympic tourists. The Olympians are there to win. But, let’s face it, there are other athletes who know they have no chance; they’re just there for the experience."

The athletic tourists - from more than 200 countries - are in the vast majority. "Athletes who are knocked out early have basically a two-week, all-expenses-paid vacation with nothing to do," says American shot-putter John Godina, a silver medallist in Atlanta. "And that’s when things happen."

The further into the fortnight you get, the fewer people you have living under coach-policed curfews, forced to abstain from the bacchanalia. And once they’re done, watch out: thousands of young people with boundless energy and great legs are suddenly let loose.

Once freed, many athletes simply cannot control themselves. They are slaves to an irresistible physiological force called "tapering" that works like this: many competitors in endurance sports consume as many as 9,000 calories a day at the height of their training cycles. But they swim or run or pedal seven hours a day to burn these off. In order to peak for the Games, however, they reduce their training time to mere minutes in the days preceding their events while keeping the calorie count virtually constant. Thus an athlete is spring-loaded for his or her moment in the sun: lots of rest, lots of energy - boom. The results, particularly within a large, like-minded population, can be electric. "When you have 10,000 people walking around who are amped up on their own glycogen you can almost see the sparks flying off their skin," says BJ Bedford, the American backstroke gold-medallist at Sydney.

At the Albertville winter Olympics, condom machines in the athletes’ village had to be refilled every two hours. And in Sydney the organisers’ original order of 70,000 condoms went so fast that they had to order 20,000 more. Even with the replenishment, the supply was exhausted three days before the end of the competition schedule. (For the record, athletes who were in Sydney report that the Cuban delegation was the first to use up its allocation.) Salt Lake City in 2002 went even bigger: 250,000 condoms were handed out, despite the objections of the city’s Mormon leadership.

"There’s a lot of sex going on. You get a lot of people who are in shape, and, you know, testosterone’s up and everybody’s attracted to everybody," says Breaux Greer, a shaggy-blond Californian who competed in the javelin at the Sydney Games.

"It’s not an orgy," says one alpine skiing champion, Carrie Sheinberg, "but it is socially vigorous."

Olympic village shenanigans aren’t limited to sex. Misbehaviour of almost every possible type is inspired by the confluence of great athletes, huge egos and almost limitless endurance, to say nothing of alcohol, which nearly all athletes say was prodigiously consumed after their events had ended. (Alcohol is officially frowned on in the village, but it is not hard to find it smuggled onto the premises.)

Randy Jones, a silver-medal-winning American bobsledder, remembers with disgust an American ice-hockey team trashing their hotel after they failed to win.

Christo Doyle of Atlanta recalls "delivering boxing equipment that had come in late for Moldova, and it was 105 degrees outside. They were so appreciative that they insisted we come in and do vodka shots with them. It was horrific."

The Moldovans, though, do not get the gold medal for the most boozed-up partners in Olympic Town. That award - based on an informal athlete poll - is split between the Canadians and the Australians. "The Aussies truly know how to party," says Dick Roth, an American who set a world swimming record in Tokyo in 1964. "The main reason I hung out with them is that their coach didn’t mind them drinking beer. It was fun - lots of drinking. They were more relaxed than everybody else."

Rennae Stubbs, an Australian Olympic tennis player who competed in Atlanta and Sydney, does not dispute the characterisation. "We’re a free-loving, fun-loving group of people," she says. "We’re not as worried as some countries about repercussions."

In winter the Canadians win gold, not only for exuberance but also because they have a national beer company, Molson, that routinely delivers liquid supplies.

Edith Thys, an American skier at Calgary and Albertville, agrees that the partying gold should probably go to the Canadians, but she awards the licentiousness medal to the French. "They are by far the most promiscuous," says Thys, "but only with each other. I’m not sure if that’s because they wouldn’t sleep with anybody else, or because nobody else would sleep with them."

One other group that deserves some mention in a discussion of Olympic Village mischief is "the locals" who live just outside, says Godina. The shot-putter, who laughingly describes himself as "six-foot-four and 290 pounds", says local women can be especially impressed by large men in tracksuits. Two of his teammates at the Sydney Games used a tried-and-true method on them: "Start in a bar and impress them by getting them into a party thrown by one of the sponsors," says Godina, referring to the many lavish celebrations paid for by advertisers. Apparently it worked. "They woke up across the harbour, 12 miles away from the village, next to these ladies," he says.

Greer, the javelin thrower, capitalised on the good will of sponsors in a very different way. "I went to a party thrown by Sports Illustrated magazine with my roommate, Jud Logan [an American hammer thrower]. We got pretty shit-faced and ended up wrestling in the street. Jud picks me up and just body-slams me - damn near knocks me out. Anyway, the next thing I know we’re in some girl’s hotel room. She worked for Speedo."

Greer left the next morning with more than just memories. He got a lovely parting gift - his own Speedo Fastskin, the much talked-about full-body swimsuit that first appeared in Sydney. "Yep," he recalls, "I got me one of those out of the deal."

The arrival of money and athletes, and the sponsors and businessmen who swarm around them, also supports a very old industry - which is why a union called the Movement of Greek Prostitutes is protesting against Athens’ new "unrealistic" zoning laws restricting legal brothels from operating within 200m of various public buildings.

"If the laws don’t change," says the group’s head, Dimitra Kanelopoulou, "prostitutes are going to flood the streets, topless and in heels. What a great image for the Olympics."

Not that laws - or fences - have ever curbed the profession. In Sydney, three prostitutes were found in the Olympic village itself, the Miami Herald reported, after being signed in as guests by "an employee of a major American television network".

"Every athlete who goes to the Games is intimately familiar with what a life of training and genetic culling does to people in his sport," says Terry Kent, an American Olympic kayaker who competed in LA, Seoul and Barcelona. "Everybody has been trying to achieve a freak-of-nature status just a little bit more extreme than the next guy. But when you’re thrown into the village you are suddenly confronted with a cornucopia of ultra-honed bodies twisted by the demands of sport."

Kent remembers sitting in the village, watching athletes walk through the door and playing a game of Guess What They Do. "The bikers have skinny little upper bodies, farmer tans and massive, clean-shaven thighs. Invert them and you get the kayakers, who have skinny little legs and massive backs and shoulders. The seven-foot-tall giant who ducks under the doorway entering the cafeteria is probably from basketball. The seven-foot giant who smacks his head on the door frame is definitely a rower; they don’t have that hand-eye co-ordination thing. The kids running at the rowers’ ankles with the high-pitched voices are gymnasts. It just goes on and on. Being at the village is like taking your place in a wild anatomical parade seen nowhere else on the planet."

An informal poll of summer Olympians puts swimmers and gymnasts at the top of the best-proportioned-body list. Cathy Rigby, a gymnast who took part in the Games of Mexico City and Munich, once told a reporter that gymnasts’ bodies are so aesthetically pleasing they should be forced to perform naked.

"It’s really a question of ‘which flavour do you like?’," says swimmer Diebel. "If you like six-packs, see the gymnasts. Like butts? Go to track and field. The only thing you’re deprived of is fat. If you’re the rare athlete who likes sedentary bodies, you’re shit out of luck."

There was, of course, a dark period for Olympic bodies, says gold-medal-winning swimmer Dick Roth: the Cold War, when Eastern European athletes - in particular, women - were fed bizarre chemical concoctions that resulted in bloated medal counts and grotesquely inflated bodies. "The worst body I ever saw at the Olympic village [in Tokyo] was a Russian basketballer," says Roth. "She was seven foot tall and just looked terrible. Huge. Out of proportion. Masculine. And I also remember this gorgeous, blonde, blue-eyed German swimmer walking towards me - I even took a picture of her. I turned around after she’d passed by, and saw she had a massive back. It was as if I were looking at a guy from the back. ‘What are they doing to those people?’ I thought."

But can it be good for athletes to be distracted by sex? And can any of them resist? Veteran athletes, not surprisingly, are best at abstaining. They’ve seen temptation before and know what giving in to it can do to even the most focused Olympian.

"One of my rules is, ‘Don’t fish from the company dock’," says American backstroker Bedford. "The world is too small, even if you hook up with a swimmer from a different country. It’s just not worth it. It’s too much to handle."

Diebel agrees: "You definitely notice all the beautiful bodies around you, but you file it away for later, after the competition is over. Nobody who spends that much time working towards a goal says: ‘I’m going to go chase that girl and ruin my chances in the race the next day.’"

The idea that sex can hinder performance is hardly a new one. Researchers have long suggested that abstaining before competition enhances performance. Prior to the Barcelona Games, however, doctors at a Jerusalem sex clinic advised women on the Israeli team to have sex before their events. "Women compete better after orgasm, especially high-jumpers and runners," one of the doctors claimed. The German team physician endorses sex for male and female athletes, saying: "Sex does not cause any loss of strength."

He may be right. This year, a Russian psychologist told a German newspaper that neither gender should abstain. "It’s simple," she said. "More sex means more gold."

Dick Roth remembers Tokyo in the 1960s, a time before sex studies and internet hook-ups - and yet still very much alive. "It was a lot more innocent back then," he says, "but not only did I see it, I participated in it. You’ve been working so hard, and everybody is so in the absolute prime of life, and everyone looks so good. This was before the sexual revolution, and it was discreet. But it was happening."

Then he pauses for a moment. "I know I have to be careful when I talk to a journalist, but I can say this: It wasn’t the f**k-fest it is now."

The 2004 Olympics begin on 11 August