There is a movement that focuses on ‘consistently contributing to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced in accordance with Olympism and its values’. This is the Olympic Movement. There is no better place to see it than in the Athletes’ Village.
Home to more than 10,500 of the world’s best athletes, from 206 countries, all living in harmony and competing against each other, the Village is a vision of what this ‘better world’ would look like. It demonstrates that unity in diversity is not just an idea, but a possibility.
One of my favorite moments at the Olympics is arriving at the Athletes’ Village. The 206 flags towering over us greet us with a splash of color, representing different languages and cultures from around the world.
Arriving at my first Olympics in Sydney in 2000, I remember trying to take everything in at once and desperately wishing for a glimpse of anyone famous. Excitement is rampant; everywhere you look, photos are being taken and fingers are pointing. Some athletes stare in bewilderment or talk with no sense of purpose, while others have tears streaming down their faces. There are shrieks of delight as the younger athletes spot their first celebrity athlete. There is laughter as the older ones remember how they felt at their first Olympics. The wind in the flags, thrill of the athletes and the vibrant anticipation in the air generates an energy that will hum until the Olympic flame is extinguished and the last athlete leaves the Village.
There is a deeper purpose than just us athletes competing for the world to see and the Olympic Truce Wall reminds us of this. Positioned near the entrance among the flags, the Wall is a symbol for all athletes, coaches, team officials and heads of state to sign as a public declaration to observe and promote peace. At the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, I signed the Wall with UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon after he reiterated the importance of our responsibilities.
“We are joining our forces together for our shared ideals: sustainability, universality, solidarity, non-discrimination, the fundamental equality of all people,” said Ban.
This equality is what the Olympic Movement – portrayed in the Athletes’ Village – aims to achieve. Every athlete here has the same access to the same resources. We all sleep in similar apartments, train in the same 24-hour world-class gym, have access to the clinic (doctors, dentists, physical therapists, and in-house pharmacy), we ride the same buses to our venues, and eat the same food at the same tables in the same 24,000-square-meter dining hall. Everything provided for all the athletes here is free. If this is overwhelming and the stress is too much then there is an Athletes’ Area filled with video games, billiards, table tennis, a music area and a mini movie theater to unwind.
As a swimmer, I thought I got up early. That is until I see the boxers drenched in sweat from their morning run or taekwondo athletes going through their routines. Watching the speed walkers train is always interesting, as is guessing which country athletes are from by trying to identify their team kit. The Village is big and it bustles with an endless movement of athletes training, chatting on benches in the landscaped park, or walking to and from the dining hall. Serving about 60,000 meals a day is no joke, athletes like to eat! The dining hall is the most frequented area and a place where you could find yourself (like I did during the London Olympics in 2012) having lunch with younger athletes, sitting next to Roger Federer and laughing at something Kobe Bryant was doing.
This is the culture the Village creates by bringing all of us together on an equal platform. It is also an essential part of a young athlete’s life because they are exposed to such an elite level of athletes which they may never have had access to. I saw Muhammad Ali when he visited the Village in Sydney and this left an indelible impression on me.
We may play different sports, wear different colors, believe in different things and speak different languages but we all have the same determination, the same goal and share the same fact that no one here has given up. Some of my fiercest competitors are my best friends, despite our different backgrounds, because we can find common ground in our goals and challenges and use it to get stronger. Unity in diversity is more than just a possibility, it is a necessity for our survival. In this Village there is no judgment, only encouragement. This is the Olympic spirit.