In the Ancient Olympic Games, the athletes came to live and compete together in Ancient Olympia, but at most early Games of the Modern era, those taking part did not live in an Olympic Village but in hotel accommodation around the host city.
Despite the enthusiasm of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the idea of a ''Village'' did not catch on until the 1920s.
In 1923 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executive Board met in Rome and stipulated that: “the Organising Committee is required to provide accommodation and food for a fixed prize, to be borne by the participating nations.’’
For the 1924 Games, wooden huts were provided in the Boulevard de Valmy close to the Stade de Colombes. The daily charge for a bed was 30 francs per person. board was 25 francs and included food laundry, electricity and showers. Discounts were available for multiple booking. Competitors were offered three square meals a day. Lunch included a half bottle of red or white wine, and dinner included soup, a main meat course and desert with the same availability of wine or beer.
Organisers at the Amsterdam Games of 1928 were keen to emulate Paris and provide an Olympic Village but "it was found impractical to erect premises which really met the requirements and offer accommodation at a reasonable price".
No Olympic Village was therefore built. Instead many competitors were housed in schools, others in hotels. The Americans stayed on the President Roosevelt, moored in Amsterdam harbour.
When the Games were over organisers proudly reported how ‘’not a single serious complaint was made about the nature of the accommodation, the provisions made for contestants and officials or about the charges being too high.’’
In 1932, Los Angeles hosted the Olympics and the Village was an altogether more sophisticated undertaking. Built in the Baldwin Hills with a view across Los Angeles, it had its own hospital, an open air theatre , post office and even a fire station.
“It was hoped to achieve something more than the mere comfortable housing of the athletes. It was hoped that in the Olympic Village, the sons of many lands could find a common ground of understanding.’’
The women were put up in the Chapman Park Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard, far away from the men. ’’It was felt feminine needs could be more completely met in some permanent type of residence.’’
When the teams arrived they were greeted with a message of welcome from Organising Committee president William May Garland.
“Let us all demonstrate that Olympic self discipline can produce a record of peace and happiness among the 2,000 inhabitants of the Village," he said.
In the lounge, a plaque bore the words of Pierre de Coubertin’s Olympic creed: ‘’the important thing in life is not to have conquered but to have fought well. To spread these precepts is to build up a stronger and more valiant and above all more scrupulous and more generous humanity’."
A memo was circulated to staff working at the Village.‘’Courtesy must be uppermost in your mind at all times. THE GUEST IS ALWAYS RIGHT. We request you to give our guests the best service with the least noise and confusion. Loud talking, singing, whistling , rattling of the tools and all unnecessary noises must be avoided. The chewing of gum, use of intoxicating liquors smoking or reading on duty will not be tolerated.’’
Four years later, an Olympic Village was established in woodlands at Doberlitz some 14 kilometres from Berlin. As in Los Angeles, the Village was only for men. When they arrived they were greeted with the following words.
‘’Welcome to the Olympic Village. Here you will dwell with your friends and fellow participants, a community of comrades serving the same ideal who are overjoyed to greet you, live with you and pass pleasant hours in your company.’’
The teams were welcomed at the railway station again at the town hall and then at the Village. The accommodation huts were each named after a German city and were decorated by students from German fine arts schools.
In addition to formal training venues around Berlin, there were sports facilities within the village complex. In the communal areas, it was possible to get a haircut and a massage. A full hour could be had for three reichmarks. There were midday concerts, performances by international dance troupes and even the Berlin Philharmonic played by torchlight. There were also spectacular firework displays.There was even a village newspaper, Der Dorfbote.
No wonder the IOC magazine later reported that ’’the athletes found all home comforts’’. The official report produced after the Games was positively lyrical about the surroundings. ‘’Numerous rabbits scampered across grassy plots, pigeons cooed under the roof of the sauna and white and black storks strutted proudly along the shores of the lake," it said.
The Village was managed by Lieutenant Colonel Werner von Und Zu Gilsa and Captain Wolfgang Furstner. Tragically, Furstner became aware that he had Jewish ancestry and took his own life shortly after the Games had ended.
It was the Nazi shadow over Berlin that prompted Munich 1972 organisers to be as relaxed as possible. The streets were named after great Olympians of the past. Village guards were dressed in pastel colours and were not armed. The informality had tragic consequences. Terrorists infiltrated the Israeli quarters and took hostages. They were allowed to leave the Village for a local airbase where a rescue attempt went tragically wrong. Eleven Israelis lost their lives. Ever since, security at the Olympic Village has been intense and Rio will be no different.
Olympic accommodation for the athletes is now a high priority but in the past the provision was basic to say the least.
For the first Olympics after the second world war, austerity was the keynote. Many of the competitors had experienced military life and were used to the privations of service accommodation. The main camp was at the Royal Air Force base in Uxbridge, some 12 kilometres from Wembley Stadium. An agreement was reached for the accommodation to be provided free of charge but any additional building needed would be paid for by the organising committee. The surroundings were familiar for Jamaica’s 400m champion Arthur Wint. He had been stationed at Uxbridge during his RAF service. Athletes were also housed at West Drayton and in Richmond.
The women were billeted in a hostel in central London.
Facilities at Uxbridge included ‘’a special Scandinavian vapour bath’’. The radio programme ‘’Any Questions?’’ visited the Village for a special edition and a local newspaper proudly announced that one firm was ’’helping to keep perspiring athletes cool with a weekly delivery of 400 gallons of ice cream".
Petrol rationing was in force then so it was decided that the rowers and canoeists, competing at Henley would be lodged in nearby High Wycombe at local schools.
The 1952 Games in Helsinki were the first at which the competitors from the Soviet Union took part. But if organisers were hoping that this would be a great opportunity for nations to come together, they were disappointed. In fact the Soviet officials insisted on separate accommodation. Instead of the Olympic Rings, a huge banner with a portrait of Josef Stalin was on display.
Melbourne’s Olympic Village in 1956 was built to be used as a housing project in the suburb of Heidelberg but the streets were not named after great Olympic champions. Instead they bore the name of recent battles in which Australian soldiers had fought.
Harry Gordon, a distinguished Australian journalist suggested: ‘’this wasn’t a very appropriate thing to be happening during an international festival of goodwill. I suggested that the street names be changed to celebrate Olympic achievement’’.
The streets were renamed after athlete Edwin Flack and swimmer Frank Beaurepaire but only for the duration of the Olympics. Even so romance blossomed in the village for the American hammer champion Hal Connolly and Czechoslovakian discus thrower Olga Fikotova.
By the late 1960s the name Village itself had become a misnomer. For the Mexico Games in 1968 the future King of Norway was a competitor in the sailing at Acapulco. He might just have been the only Village inhabitant who was also a honeymooner. His wife Queen Sonja later revealed that the pair were kept apart during the Games.
The main Village in the capital was also a focal point for student activists protesting against repression by the Mexican government.
“a student came to the edge of the compound area,‘’ said 400m hurdles champion David Hemery. ”He was trying to say this is not personal this has nothing to do with the Olympics. We respect what you are here for but the world’s press are here and we have no better time to challenge the regime. Please let the people inside know.”
In 1976 Montreal’s tower blocks were a far cry from the early Olympic villages.. Construction had not begin until two years before the Games. Originally budgeted at CDN $30 million, construction was completed in only 16 months but the cost soared to over three times that.
IOC President Lord Killanin called this ‘’the height of Montreal’s folly’’. The Village was secure all right, patrolled by gun-toting security guards and an 800 metres tunnel gave access to the Olympic stadium, but there were complaints that rooms were too small.
Village spokesman Rosaire Corbin insisted ‘’ We will be crowded but not overcrowded.” As it turned out, many of the rooms remained unoccupied because of boycotts so the overcrowding was not quite as severe as first feared.
Overcrowding was potentially a problem for Lake Placid’s Village for the 1980 Winter Games. There was outrage when it was announced that the buildings would be converted into a prison.
When Los Angeles hosted the Games for a second time in 1984, they kept new buildings to a minimum. Instead UCLA and the University of Southern California were used by an Organising Committee determined to keep costs down. ‘’Athletes will find great attention has been paid to their physical comfort, their diet and leisure,‘’ said Village Mayor Philip N Brubaker. ’’The tone must help facilitate friendship among countries in a celebration of sport.’’ It was not considered appropriate to offer alcohol, in stark contrast to the first Olympic Village 60 years previously, although discos, video games and coffee houses were on offer.
University accommodation was also used at the 1996 Centennial Games in Atlanta. The Mayor was popular triple jumper Willie Banks. For the first time, the international zone included a ‘’Surfing Shack’’ where Athletes were able to experience the Internet for the first time. Security was tight, accreditation included handprint technology for the first time. In the International Zone, athletes could swim or even have dental and hearing checkups and treatment.
Barcelona had built a whole new suburb for their 1992 Games. It was the first Olympic Village to have its own private beach. To the delight of the team officials It was the first to be offered free of charge.
As the Games have entered the new Millennium they have been about superlatives. Sydney 2000 claimed the first Village capable of accommodating every participant in the Games. In terms of population it was the fifth largest city in New South Wales. Most of the accommodation was positioned to maximise natural light and heating and solar panels generated electricity. The bed making was one thing that could not be done automatically. It was estimated that beds were made 396,000 times the equivalent of 271 years of bed making for the average family of four.
Four years ago, London’s Village was within walking distance of the Olympic park. Streets included Cheering Lane and Celebration avenue and the central parkland area was named Victory Park. The accommodation even came complete with bird boxes though the kitchens were ‘’retro-fitted’’ after the Games. The Village also included a ‘’truce wall’’ a tangible symbol of the harmony of this vast international community during the Games.