Utopia - inside the global villageComment on this story
London - The Jamaican athletics team is queuing patiently at the grilled chicken counter; behind them, the Cuban and Mali squads sit side by side sipping Fanta and slurping soup - and to their right, a row of Serbians tuck into plates full of pizza. This is the belly of the Athletes' Village, the canteen where sportsmen and women gather to refuel themselves and eye the competition.
Journalists are barred from the village unless they have an official invite from a country's National Olympic Committee, but The Independent on Sunday is the guest of Ghana, meeting one of their boxers, the south Londoner Isaac Dogboe. The 17-year-old is picking tentatively at some rice, but he's most interested in the McDonald's cookies stacked next to his plate.
Behind us are three Jamaican 400m hurdlers and sprinters, who have piled three plates each with prawns and rice. Every nation's food is represented in this vast eating warehouse, and the most popular stations seem to be the African and Caribbean food, where queues build up quickly. The Best of Britain section, serving roast dinners and other British specialities, is like a ghost town.
Outside, the polished, traffic-free streets and splashes of primary colour make the place feel like Legoland for the agile. In one vast open courtyard, brightly coloured bikes are left free-standing (no need for locks here).
This is home to some 17,000 athletes and officials during the Games and is kept closely guarded with security checkpoints and police patrolling. Walking around you feel like a flabby Lilliputian, as you pass towering Russians, Swedes and Nigerians (these three seem to be in the lead on the height front).
Like an enormous 18-30 holiday camp for hard bodies, this would fulfil all the testosterone-fuelled dreams of most 17-year-old boys, but Dogboe has no intention of indulging in any of the, er, extra-curricular activities. “My parents are very strict. I don't want to let them down,” he says. Even though he was knocked out of contention in the first round of the boxing last week, he is still sticking strictly to his monastic lifestyle of training, early nights and prayer.
Not that there are any obvious signs of how to have a party yet. In the Globe bar, the fridge is stacked full, but you won't find any beer or alcopops. Instead, sponsor-pleasing row upon row of blue Powerade bottles sit in glass cabinets next to Coke and Fanta. The partying is of a wholesome flavour: there are rows of table football and pool tables, and leather sofas in front of televisions showing - you've guessed it - sport.
Outside Team GB's accommodation block, where every balcony has a Union flag, a fire and police car have pulled up outside. Some wag apparently set off the alarm by mistake, so they quickly head off again.
It wouldn't be an estate full of Olympians if there weren't an element of competition. Each country has taken to putting up posters in their windows for each medal they win. Japan's is the most hi-tech, with graphics of gold, silver and bronze medals displayed. At Eritrea's office suite a little further on, the glass is woefully bare.
Inside the rooms, the set-up is fairly spartan, the only expensive touch being the flat-screen televisions in the living rooms. Dogboe's room is much like any other teenage boy's - smelling of Lynx and with few surfaces not strewn with clothes.
Everything is free - each athlete has a swipe card and the vending machines dish out chilled drinks at any hour gratis.
Athletes can also get on with the serious business of training in the village. Inside the main gym two Norwegian athletes are running at speed on treadmills, dressed in the blue and red tracksuits of their team.
The village has a vaguely unreal, utopian feel: one world of people competing, yet united in the common goal of striving, winning.
Reality imposes itself on one corner: in a hidden section where nobody seems to be hanging out, the least-popular nations have been lumped together. Zimbabwe's accommodation block sits opposite Israel's, which has two armed police guards at its door; the neighbour around the corner is Bahrain.
Outside the Australian block the atmosphere could not be more different. The Aussies may be doing abysmally in the medal tables, but they are in pole position for the Most Disruptive Olympians award, with one rower already arrested for drunkenly smashing a window. Just in case anyone is in any doubt about their nationality or determination to have a good time, they have hung from their balconies enormous banners emblazoned with the cheer: “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi”.
- The Independent on Sunday