"It is," says Jonathan Edwards, perched on a bed in the Olympic village, "a remarkable environment." In four months' time it will become home to the world's greatest athletes, from Usain Bolt to Michael Phelps to Chris Hoy to Rafa Nadal, and all will stay in one of the 2,818 apartments constructed on the eastern side of the Olympic Park with their basic furniture, shared bathrooms and lounges and 24-hour dining hall. Even, should he be selected, David Beckham.
The Football Association has promised that Team GB's footballers will spend time in the village as part of the 16,000 athletes, coaches and officials quartered there from July, and the conditions will not be what Beckham and Co have become accustomed to. The apartment blocks resemble well-to-do student residences with their single beds and flat-packed furniture (40 people have been employed in the village since October charged with assembling 16,000 beds, 11,000 sofas and 9,000 wardrobes). But this is part of the Olympic experience, and by and large it is one athletes of all levels relish. Four years ago Lionel Messi was a happy member of the Beijing village people.
"It's a compromise," says Edwards, chair of the organising committee's athletes' panel and a veteran of four Games. "It's the beautiful irony of the Olympics – it's the most important competition of your life and, you can argue, the least advantageous conditions. You go to a world championships and you're in a single room with an en-suite, whereas here you are sharing. I remember in Sydney being nose to nose with Steve Backley snoring. Every athlete will come to an Olympic village understanding the parameters they have to deal with but at the same time it is the atmosphere here that makes it special."
The £1bn village is made up of 11 residential blocks, 10 of which are constructed around their own landscaped courtyard. There will be shops, including a beauty salon for that pre-medal ceremony sprucing, and a separate dining area which can feed 5,000 per sitting. Karen Pickering, the former Olympic swimmer who sat on Edwards' committee, had the task of checking and tasting the menus.
After the Games the apartments will be converted into housing, but for its Olympic purposes they have no kitchens. Instead the kitchen-elect provides an extra bedroom; with an array of power points and a boarded up extractor fan it will not be the most wanted room.
Security is tight, with airport-style checks and CCTV around the fenced perimeter. There will be 1,500 security staff working on rota to guard the village, and some teams will also bring their own security personnel although they have no authority within the village. There is 24-hour access, but Tony Sainsbury, the head of village, insists that Olympic legends of extensive partying are far from the truth. "It's really quite boring," he says. Edwards, though, did once criticise swimmers for their non-sporting village pastimes.
Holiday Inn are providing 90 staff, including Milos Cerovic, a former Olympic swimmer who has been switched from his regular post in Budapest, to oversee 8,000 volunteers. The organisers are working out where each nation will stay and claim that no political considerations are taken into account when allocating living quarters. The larger nations, such as Britain, Germany, China, the US and Russia, are dealt with first and then the smaller teams fitted around them.
Each block accommodates around 1,100 people. They consist of apartments sleeping four, six or eight in double or single rooms – if a room is less than 12 square feet it is single. Once a team – Britain's will be 550 strong – has its accommodation the apartment plans are sent out by the country's chef de mission to the various coaches to decide who to room with whom – and who should sleep on their own.
"You are nervous when you arrive in an Olympic village," says Edwards. "What are conditions going to be like for the most important competition of your life? It's not that everything has to be perfect, just that basics are taken care of. The beds are good enough, black-out blinds so you can have a good night's sleep, good food in the dining hall and services like transport. That's what we focussed on in the athlete's committee – the nuts and bolts." His committee even considered the waiting time for lifts in the apartment blocks. It's one minute.
All beds are single – to the possible disappointment of swimmers – and all are extendable – to the relief of basketballers. The rooms are not spacious but are bright and neat. There is a wardrobe, two bedside cabinets, two angle poise bedside lamps and two beds. Edwards' committee – which has collective experience of 33 Games – tested eight different mattresses before settling on their choice. Athletes can take home the duvet covers, that garishly display the Olympic sports. The beds were originally designed with a wooden panel around the base but the athlete's committee asked for it to be cut away so kit could be stored. They also asked for more pegs – "it's about tiny detail," says Edwards.
Some of the rooms have a small ensuite while each apartment also has a separate bathroom.
For the first time each apartment will be fitted with a TV on which athletes can receive live feeds of all 28 Olympic sports. They also have Freeview – and can pay to upgrade to movie channels and the like – to watch from garish aqua-marine sofas dotted with pink cushions. The lounges are not large but each has a good-sized balcony. Different nations have different village customs – the Germans festoon their balconies with flags, for example.
"There's a feel of camaraderie, support," sums up Edwards of the village experience. "It's a great place to be. I know what it's like to turn up at an Olympics with all those hopes and fears. You have to have the platform right. It's not a five-star resort but for an Olympic village this is outstanding."Reuse content