An Inside Look: Life at the Olympic Games

On her second "day off," Nancy Jaffer offers an inside look at what life is like for the journalists, riders and horses at the Olympic Games.
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On her second "day off," Nancy Jaffer offers an inside look at what life is like for the journalists, riders and horses at the Olympic Games.

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Markopoulo, Greece, August 26, 2004--There was no competition today, but it's never a day off for me. Journalists at the Games are always writing or interviewing and taking advantage of having the world's best equestrian athletes all in one place.

Not that it's easy to get to them. Access is very restricted in an Olympic venue. That means most of our interviews are done in groups, which goes against the grain since we all want exclusive stories. Sometimes we can manage it, but it's difficult.

We all wear credentials around our necks with our pictures and various codes showing where we are allowed to go (very few places). Most of us decorate the ribbon strap attached to the credential with pins, which are the currency of the Games.

Whenever your bags go through X-ray, which happens every time you enter a venue or the media village, you're always asked for pins by the guards (I've never figured out whether they're police or army, except for the ones with the machine guns who look like serious soldiers). If you say you don't have any pins, they give you a dirty look. I finally realized they can tell by looking at the X-rays whether you have the pins or not.

If someone does you a favor, you give them a pin. Ditto if you want a favor. I was walking through the Main Press Center, known by all as the MPC, when a volunteer worker spotted a Vodafone lanyard around my neck. He explained that they were trying to curb commercialism at the facility and asked me to put it away. I complied, and then he handed me a bunch of pins, including one advertising Coca-Cola. Curbing commercialism? Then I realized that Vodafone isn't an Olympic sponsor. Another cell phone company who is a sponsor had a placard prominently displayed not 20 feet from where I was standing.

There are also pin collectors, both serious and not-so serious. The serious ones have set up shop outside the IBC (International Broadcast Center) where they display their wares on velvet and sell or trade them, as they have at every Olympics I've attended.

For the not-so-serious collector, trading pins is a gesture of friendship. Luckily, I'm well provided for with our bright red Equisearch pins featuring a horsehead and a Greek column, which I can dole out on appropriate occasions (of which there are many.)

Life during the two-plus weeks of the Olympics is different than it is during the other three years and 49 weeks between the Games. It has its own rules and fight as you may, you get used to living the way you have to. Generally that involves long waits for transportation, difficulty in obtaining the type of food you'd prefer (if you even have time to get a bite) and sleep deprivation. I actually fell asleep at the dinner table in a taverna one night, much to my embarrassment.

I always have trouble adjusting when I first arrive at a Games, especially if I'm living in a media village like our Agios Andreas (nicknamed "Camp X-ray" by one of our resident wits). It was a summer "resort" for enlisted men and their wives on the Aegean sea (not that I'll ever have time to dip a toe into it.)

On arrival at the village I always go through a process that's similar to the stages of grief. First there's depression, then anger (I think we skip denial) and finally acceptance. If the bus is late, you take it in stride; if one phone connection doesn't work, you try another.

Agios Andreas has little "apartments" with two tiny bedrooms sharing a bathroom nearly too small to turn around in. Luckily I had the bathroom to myself since no one ever moved into the other bedroom. I wonder if the fact that I Super-glued the door shut is the reason.

These little "condos" all look the same, and with nearly 3,000 people living here you can imagine how confusing it is to find your way around, like the labyrinth of Greek myth.

Here's a memo to all the well-meaning acquaintances who told me to have fun at the Olympics: The Olympics is not fun if you're a serious journalist.

It is many things, which run the gamut from inspiring to frustrating, but it is not fun. Fun would be sipping champagne with royalty and the International Olympic Committee at the elegant Hotel Grand Bretagne downtown and having a car and driver to deposit you at your venue. On a more moderate note, it would have been nice to stay at the airport hotel near the equestrian venue. Normally the airport hotel is 250 Euros a night (a Euro is worth more than a dollar), which means I couldn't afford it in the best of times anyway. But during the Olympics, what a deal -- it goes for 750 Euros a night.

Of course, if I were there I wouldn't have the joy of dealing with the village's "hospitality vans" (or as someone I met calls them, the "hostility vans") that don't stop unless you throw your body in front of them. And then when you can find it there's the "Fun Train" (anything that has the word fun in it, isn't) that wends its way around the campus to the tune of tape-recorded train sounds (it's actually like a cross between a golf cart and a bus).

Okay, enough of that. I wanted to tell you about a visit to the stables. It's not like Devon, where I can wander back to the barn and find anyone I need. We're not allowed within a half-mile of the stables, and our tour there was strictly escorted so we couldn't stray.

We'd been hearing about the state-of-the-art facilities, but they really are amazing. There are four blocks of 64 stalls and one of 72. Each nation has at least one tack room and one stall for feed and bedding. There's a vast warehouse of the latter, where I was happy to note big bags of carrots with which to treat the horses.

Even on a hot day the stables are airy because of ventilation louvers in the roof and the layout, which means there's always a breeze. If extra cooling is needed there's a tented area with misting fans that's delightful. Horses often stand there when they finish with competition in order to bring down their temperature. There are round pens and rings, all with good footing, of course.

At least six stewards are on hand 24 hours a day "to insure the horses are okay and no one is up to doing things they're shouldn't be doing," as our tour guide put it.

There's a state-of-the-art veterinary clinic where operations can be performed, another security blanket for horses' comfort and safety.

Grooms live in a block of apartments a few steps from the stables, and there is an athletes' lounge with umbrella tables outside where riders can relax. During the Olympics, athletes are royalty, and the horses and their riders are no exceptions.

We wrap up competition Friday with the individual medals in show jumping. I think the U.S. has a good chance of getting one and who knows, maybe two? A source told me that Ludger Beerbaum's horse, Goldfever, looks a bit tired, though after a day's rest in the Hilton of stables he may be back to himself.

Looking at the list of contenders in the field of 45, all of whom start on zero faults, I have to like Beezie Madden and Chris Kappler from the U.S., Nick Skelton of Great Britain, Ludger and maybe Rolf-Goran Bengtsson of Sweden. But someone else, perhaps Rodrigo Pessoa from further down the list, could also make an impact, so we'll see. Don't forget to check EquiSearch tomorrow for all the details.