Sam Alipour reports for ESPN The Magazine's 23 Jul 2012 issue:
AMERICAN TARGET SHOOTER Josh Lakatos faced a conundrum. Halfway through the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, he and his rifle-toting teammates were finished with their events, and the U.S. Olympic Committee and team officials had ordered them to turn in the keys to their three-story house and head back to the States. But Lakatos didn't want to leave. He knew from his experience four years earlier in Atlanta, where he'd won silver, that the Olympic Village was just about to erupt into a raucous party, and there was no way he was going to miss it. So he asked the maid at the emptied-out dwelling if she'd kindly look the other way as he jimmied the lock. "I don't care what you do," she replied.
Within hours, word of the nearly vacant property had spread. Popping up once every two years, the Olympic Village is a boisterous city within a city: chock-full of condos, midrises and houses as well as cafés, barbershops, arcades, discos and TV lounges. The only thing missing is privacy -- nearly everyone is stuck with a roommate. So while Lakatos claimed a first-floor suite for himself, the remaining rooms were there for the taking. The first to claim space that night were some Team USA track and field fellas.
"The next morning," Lakatos says, "swear to God, the entire women's 4x100 relay team of some Scandinavian-looking country walks out of the house, followed by boys from our side. And I'm just going, 'Holy crap, we'd watched these girls run the night before.'"
And on it went for eight days as scores of Olympians, male and female, trickled into the shooter's house -- and that's what everyone called it, Shooters' House -- at all hours, stopping by an Oakley duffel bag overflowing with condoms procured from the village's helpful medical clinic. After a while, it dawned on Lakatos: "I'm running a friggin' brothel in the Olympic Village! I've never witnessed so much debauchery in my entire life."
TAKE YOUR MARK
Home to more than 10,000 athletes at the Summer Games and 2,700 at the Winter, the Olympic Village is one of the world's most exclusive clubs. To join, prospective members need only have spectacular talent and -- we long assumed -- a chaste devotion to the most intense competition of their lives. But the image of a celibate Games began to flicker in '92 when it was reported that the Games' organizers had ordered in prophylactics like pizza. Then, at the 2000 Sydney Games, 70,000 condoms wasn't enough, prompting a second order of 20,000 and a new standing order of 100,000 condoms per Olympics.
Many Olympians, past and present, abide by what Summer Sanders, a swimmer who won two gold medals, a silver and a bronze in Barcelona, calls the second Olympic motto: "What happens in the village stays in the village." Yet if you ask enough active and retired athletes often enough to spill their secrets, the village gates will fly open. It quickly becomes clear that, summer or winter, the games go on long after the medal ceremony. "There's a lot of sex going on," says women's soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo, a gold medalist in 2008. How much sex? "I'd say it's 70 percent to 75 percent of Olympians," offers world-record-holding swimmer Ryan Lochte, who will be in London for his third Games. "Hey, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do."
GET SET ...
The games begin as soon as teams move in a week or so before opening ceremonies. "It's like the first day of college," says water polo captain Tony Azevedo, a veteran of Beijing, Athens and Sydney who is returning to London. "You're nervous, super excited. Everyone's meeting people and trying to hook up with someone."
Which is perfectly understandable, if not to be expected. Olympians are young, supremely healthy people who've been training with the intensity of combat troops for years. Suddenly they're released into a cocoon where prying reporters and overprotective parents aren't allowed. Pre-competition testosterone is running high. Many Olympians are in tapering mode, full of excess energy because they're maintaining a training diet of up to 9,000 calories per day while not actually training as hard. The village becomes "a pretty wild scene, the biggest melting pot you've been in," says Eric Shanteau, an American who swam in Beijing and will be heading to London.
The dining hall is among everyone's first village stops. "When I walked in for the first time in Atlanta," says women's soccer player Brandi Chastain, "there were loud cheers. So we look over and see two French handballers dressed only in socks, shoes, jockstraps, neckties and hats on top of a dining table, feeding one another lunch. We're like, 'Holy cow, what is this place?'" Many liken it to a high school cafeteria, "except everyone's beautiful," says Julie Foudy, who has two golds and one silver from playing soccer in three Olympics and is now an analyst for ESPN. "We'd graze over our food for hours watching all the eye candy, wondering why I got married."
From one end of the village to the other, flags hang from windows and music blares from balconies. "Unlike at a bar, it's not awkward to strike up a conversation because you have something in common," Solo says. "It starts with, 'What sport do you play?' All of a sudden, you're fist-bumping." BMXer Jill Kintner, who won bronze in Beijing, says the Italians are particularly inviting: "They leave their doors open, so you look in and see dudes in thongs running circles around each other."
On the way to practice fields, "the girls are in skimpy panties and bras, the dudes in underwear, so you see what everybody is working with from the jump," says Breaux Greer, an American javelin thrower. "Even if their face is a 7, their body is a 20." In Beijing, even the adolescent female gymnasts got sassy with the water polo and judo boys who shared their training room. "That's where most of my socialization took place -- in a tub, up to my chest in ice water," says silver medalist Alicia Sacramone, then 20, who served as den mother to her teammates. "The younger girls would try to flirt with stuff like, 'Look at that butt on him!' I'm like, 'Excuse me, did that just come out of your mouth? Don't pay attention to his butt!'"
Quickly the reality sinks in that the village is "just a magical, fairy-tale place, like Alice in Wonderland, where everything is possible," says Carrie Sheinberg, an alpine skier at the '94 Winter Games and a reporter for subsequent Olympics. "You could win a gold medal and you can sleep with a really hot guy."
And no matter your taste, the village has got you covered. The soccer girls? "All hot, and they dress like rock stars," one male swimmer says. Male gymnasts? "They are like lovable little Ewoks," Kintner says. Sacramone has a few favorites of her own: "As far as best bodies, it's swimmers and water polo players, because that's an insane workout. And the track guys, they're sneaky-cute. Very serious, but when they lighten up, you're like, 'Oh, you're kind of adorable.'"
The challenge athletes face is what to do with their urges and when. "If you don't have discipline, the village can be a huge distraction," Solo admits. Some swear off sex until their events are done; others make it part of their pre-event routine. American shot-putter and silver and bronze medalist John Godina thought he'd seen it all in Atlanta: late-night hookups, friends disappearing for days at a time. But he hadn't seen anything like the dorm room in Sydney he shared with a javelin thrower, which had instantly become a revolving door of women without backstories. "It's like Vegas," Godina explains. "You learn not to ask a lot of questions."
That randy roommate of Godina's, Greer, picks up the story: Each day, the shaggy blond was visited by three women, sometimes just hours apart -- an accomplished pole vaulter and former flame; a mighty hurdler who "tried to dominate me," Greer says; and a "very talented" vacationer from Scandinavia. Greer says his Olympian partners were, like him, looking to "complete the Olympics training puzzle." When his event did come around, Greer nailed Athens' longest toss in prelims before a knee injury sidelined him. "I was a happy man going into competition," he says. "If you find somebody you like and who likes you, your world's complete for a second, and you compete well."
Still, some coaches try to limit late-night activities by enforcing 11 p.m. noise curfews, banning alcohol consumption or, in the case of USA Swimming, forbidding cross-gender visitation in bedrooms. Amanda Beard, with two golds, four silvers and one bronze medal to her name, was in a relationship with another swimmer during the 2000 Games but says, "People would walk around for miles to try to sneak somewhere."
Many on-the-prowl athletes maintain that they're driven by a simple human need: intimacy, if only for a moment or three. For most Olympians, the ramp-up to the Games is lonely. Not unlike movie stars on a far-flung movie shoot, the Olympics present the perfect opportunity to find a partner who understands where they're coming from. "Think about how hard it is to meet someone," Azevedo says. "Now take an Olympian who trains from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m. every day. When the hell are you supposed to meet someone? Now the pressure is done, you're meeting like-minded people ... and boom."
Typically, the swimmers are some of the lucky ones who wrap up early. For Lochte, that typically means "hitting a local pub and drinking with the soccer hooligans," he says. But a teammate in Athens had a better idea: sex on his village balcony. "Another team saw it, which led to a big argument because they accused me. I said, 'No, I'm innocent,'" Lochte says, laughing. "I'm always innocent." After his team finished its events in Beijing, "our coach sat us down and gave us what I can only describe as the birds-and-the-bees talk," says gold medalist Cullen Jones. "We're like, 'Okay, this is extremely awkward.'"
Just outside the village are sponsors parties. But what most Olympians want, in the end, is to bring the party back to the village.
The athlete compound soon becomes the site of an uneasy dance between jocks on a post-competition bender and those who have yet to compete. Says Swiss swimmer Dominik Meichtry: "I'd get home from the clubs at 6 or 7 a.m., and I'd feel bad for the track and field guys. They're getting on a bus and we're intoxicated, wearing fedoras, looking like crap." As the curtain falls on more events, the action accelerates. Displaced roommates become commonplace, with the standard sock-on-doorknob serving as the signal for "please go away." Before long, Foudy says, "it turns into a frat party with a very nice gene pool." And heaps of stamina. "Athletes are extremists," Solo says. "When they're training, it's laser focus. When they go out for a drink, it's 20 drinks. With a once-in-a-lifetime experience, you want to build memories, whether it's sexual, partying or on the field. I've seen people having sex right out in the open. On the grass, between buildings, people are getting down and dirty."
Those who desire a little privacy can borrow a hotel room from their agents or visiting friends. "You can get pretty much whatever you want if you flash your medal," says one American female. "That usually does the trick." Not quite everything. At the Lillehammer Games in 1994, two German bobsledders tried using their medals as currency. "They made it clear that they'd trade me their gold for all kinds of other favors," Sheinberg says. "I said jokingly, 'Thanks, but Tommy Moe has a medal. I'll play with his.'" The Germans were hoping for some group fun, which is not uncommon in the village. One skier tells a story from the Vancouver Games in 2010, when six athletes -- "some Germans, Canadians and Austrians" -- got together at a home outside the Whistler village. "It was a late-night whirlpool party. It turned into a whirlpool orgy."
"This is a diplomatic relations trip," says Godina, "maybe because they feel they never have to see each other again." Adds Sheinberg: "It's also about finding something new. Olympians are adventurers. They look for a challenge, like having sex with someone who doesn't speak their language."
The sense of discovery can be powerful. At the 1976 Montreal Games, three-time Olympic diver and four-time gold medalist Greg Louganis, appearing in his first Olympics at age 16, developed a kinship with the boys on the Soviet Union diving team and soon found himself partying in their rooms. "Once events were over, our entire diet was caviar, vodka and Russian champagne. It was crazy," Louganis says. He was particularly struck by the Russians' sense of sexual liberation. "Culturally, they're more openly affectionate toward each other, which I just drank up, since I was still discovering who I was. But I had my eyes on one Soviet. I'd curl up in his lap; we'd hug and cuddle. I felt so protected." It didn't progress beyond that, Louganis says. "He was hooking up with one of the other male divers on the team" -- not to mention married.
AND KEEP GOING ...
By the eve of the closing ceremonies, all of the events have wrapped, all bets are off and the home team often hosts one hell of a party. That was certainly the case in Sydney, where Australia's baseball and women's soccer teams threw a joint bash complete with a massive bonfire. "Who knew the village furniture could burn so well," kids Alicia Ferguson, an Aussie footballer. "We did involve the fire wardens, who were very accommodating, and then we started hooking up around our very own Olympic Village bonfire."
And after the men's hockey gold medal game in Vancouver, which Canada won, a dry lounge in the village exploded into a full-blown rager. "If you were walking by, you would've thought it was a high school party," says NHLer Bobby Ryan of the silver-winning American squad. "I'm talking booze, people randomly making out, everybody else cheering them on. And that was the PG stuff. Then everything went inside."
And then there's the one party that can't be missed: the closing ceremony. Says Ferguson: "They basically throw us all in a stadium and say, 'Just go for it, party hard, get drunk and do some groping.' Which we did, with some Canadians." Here's what you don't see on TV: all of the athletes who arrive inebriated and, throughout the ceremony, sneak back and forth between the infield and the stadium with drinks. Somewhere in the middle of this party, typically, is America's women's soccer team, whose tournament runs the duration of the Games. "This is our chance to let loose," Chastain says. "Our hair is on fire, we're leaving the next morning, and we're going to enjoy our last 24 hours." After the Beijing Games, the women went, well, Hollywood. Solo recounts the story: "I probably shouldn't tell you this, but we met a bunch of celebrities. Vince Vaughn partied with us. Steve Byrne, the comedian. And at some point we decided to take the party back to the village, so we started talking to the security guards, showed off our gold medals, got their attention and snuck our group through without credentials -- which is absolutely unheard of." And, she adds, "I may have snuck a celebrity back to my room without anybody knowing, and snuck him back out. But that's my Olympic secret." The best part, according to Solo? "When we were done partying, we got out of our nice dresses, got back into our stadium coats and, at 7 a.m. with no sleep, went on the Today show drunk. Needless to say, we looked like hell."
And then it's over -- for most Olympians, anyway. For a few and the most committed, the games continue -- all the way home. On a United Airlines flight from Sydney to Los Angeles in 2000, nearly 100 Olympians were among the passengers, causing the flight attendants to begin the flight with a warning: "Ladies and gentlemen, anybody who wishes to sleep, trade seats with someone in the front of the plane. Everybody else to the back with the Olympians." After that, the story gets fuzzy.
"Everybody partnered up fairly rapidly, and when they'd bring a drink cart through, we'd send it back dry," says Lakatos, who met a girl and "comfortably occupied row 50-something for roughly half an hour." Greer ended up in the bathroom with a famous Olympian he will not name. "We're going at it, and then -- boing. I accidentally turn on the assistance light." Happily for them, once Greer assured the flight attendant of their Olympic credentials, they were able to return to their business. "And we stayed in there a long time."
It's tales like these -- of connections made and just as easily ditched -- that have London-bound Olympians dreaming of the possibilities. "My last Olympics, I had a girlfriend -- big mistake," Lochte says. "Now I'm single, so London should be really good. I'm excited." So is American runner LaShawn Merritt, the reigning Olympic gold medalist in the 400 meters. "An Olympics to remember has to have those stories," Merritt says. "But I was too locked in in Beijing. This time, when I'm done leaving my legacy on the track," he says, laughing, "I'll make sure London remembers me."
Taylor Phinney too is looking forward to a do-over in London for two reasons. In Beijing, he was an 18-year-old wunderkind American cyclist who night after night sat on his balcony, one floor below the gymnastics team terrace, and tossed Shawn Johnson prohibited Snickers bars. "She was a superstar," Phinney says of the then-16-year-old, "and I was a lowly cyclist with a massive crush." After Johnson won gold and moved to a hotel with her parents, Phinney moved his courtship to the lobby, where they closed some blinds and had a "kissing session." But Phinney's long trip to first base may have also derailed his medaling hopes. "This is going to sound stupid, but I almost forgot I had to race."
After a Skype relationship forced by their globe-trotting careers, they are now on hiatus. But Phinney can't wait for London, where Johnson, who retired in June, will be on hand to fulfill her sponsorship obligations. "I'll try to hang out with her as much as I can," he says before he doubles back, still clearly flummoxed. "And I'm going to try very hard to stay away from females." In that case, he might want to stay away from the Olympic Village altogether.