Memories of the Olympic Village

Nick Wilson, ALLSPORT, Getty Images
Nick Wilson, ALLSPORT, Getty Images

Every Olympic city provides separate housing for the world's media and an Olympic Village for the athletes, coaches and team officials.

By most accounts, Vancouver's Olympic housing is a jewel. At the very least, what it clearly is not is a converted mental hospital. So that's an upgrade.

Let me explain.

Sydney, Australia, 2000 Summer Olympics. A few weeks out, my boss informs me a mistake on the housing form means we will not have single rooms as we usually do at the Olympics. He knows three weeks is a long time to share a room with anyone, including Charlize Theron.

What can I say? It's not as if I'm relegated to a double and he has somehow found a single for himself.

The room-sharing turns out to be the good news. My boss tells me he snores. I sleep so lightly I can hear a fly landing on Kleenex. Never one to think the worst, I immediately imagine a jet engine at takeoff with me strapped to the wing for three weeks.

If anyone doubted that Aussies have a ripe sense of humor, here came the clincher. In Sydney, the boss says, the media will be housed in a former mental hospital.

At first glance, it seems to me that could come in handy. If I am driven crazy by long work days and too little sleep, at least it will be a short drive.

Upon inspection, the media "village" -- a quaint term for sure given the circumstances -- was a sterile, antiseptic campus. The buildings were crammed between the hemisphere's largest cemetery and a highway. Near one of the bars was a penned-in area.

What passed for ambiance was inside an electric fence. Kangaroos.

Historical Note

The first Olympic Village was constructed for the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. It was male only and consisted of sleeping quarters, cafeteria, amphitheatre, post office, telegraph office. No women or kangaroos. Women were put up in a hotel. This might have been the last Olympic Village that did not produce legendary stories of hanky panky among athletes. More on that later.

As they should, the athletes usually get the better end of the housing deal at the Olympics. They've worked tremendously hard for it, some suffering great financial hardship for the dream of chasing an Olympic medal, sometimes in a sport that no one much pays attention to except for a few days every four years.

They deserve to spend their days and nights surrounded by amenities and other athletes in the prime of their physical lives while those of us in the media are relegated to looking at other sportswriters in various stages of wardrobe malfunctions and sleep deprivation.

I'll go out on the limb here and say the contrast was never quite so stark as it was in Sydney.

I remember being on a plane for 24 hours, stopping at the Media Village bar for a Fosters, then strapping on my Bose headphones and hoping the sound of lapping surf would somehow jam my roommate's signal. A few hours later, I awoke to the roar of nasal thunder, and that was pretty much the routine for the next 10 days.

Olympic Fever

Long days of work writing about Olympic endeavors (and sleepless nights) took a rising toll until I ended up fainting one night. Chills. Sweat. Shivering. The next morning I went to a makeshift infirmary in the Media Center.

For athletes in Sydney -- and every other Olympic city -- access to medical treatments, massages, whatever, from caring team doctors and athletic trainers in the Olympic Village go with the territory. Day or night.

Outside the Olympic Village, the options for medical treatment aren't quite as varied and, in Sydney, did not hold the promise of a sympathetic bedside manner.

I entered the infirmary with some trepidation. Aussies are a hardy bunch. Unless a shark has bitten off a body part, an Aussie is expected to walk off whatever's hurting.

In fact, the first day in Sydney the newspaper carried what I thought was a remarkable story of a 10 year old boy who fought off a shark attack. I mentioned it to an Aussie reporter.

"Pretty amazing," I said.

He shrugged. "Not really, mate. It was only a six-footer."

I had that in the back of my mind when I went to see the doctor. My hope was that I had contracted some kind of illness -- nothing fatal, just enough to warrant his recommendation that I get my own room. Instead, he felt my forehead, shook my hand and said, "Drink more water. Next."

Maybe that's why I've always thought of the Athlete's Village as Shangri-La.

Village People

My brief visits to the Village over the years never constituted an extensive tour. Security measures did not allow for it. But I did go to the one in Sydney to interview the swimmer Eric "The Eel" Moussambani from Equatorial Guinea. He swam the slowest 100 meters in Olympic history, taking on water from the start and finishing pretty much like the S.S. Minnow washed ashore on Gilligan's Island. [Watch Moussambani's Olympic moment.]

The people who weren't clapping for him were dialing 9-1-1.

The next day, Moussambani met a few of us at the Athlete's Village and talked of how he'd been training for only eight months in a 20-meter hotel pool in his native country. He spoke of never having seen a 50-meter pool.

While we waited for him to arrive, I remember thinking that every athlete who walked by looked happy beyond description. And why not? Each Athlete's Village has international cuisine 24-7. And, of course, McDonald's. Free.

Video games. Discos. Concerts. Movies. Internet access.

Free. Free. Free. Free. Free.

Every delegation's arrival is greeted with fanfare and the playing of that country's national anthem.

It is a city within a city and there is no police force. Alcohol is not served, just occasionally smuggled or more often consumed in the downtown bars after an athlete finishes competing.

The Socially Vigorous Life

If that's not why it constitutes the time of an athlete's life, maybe it's condom giveaways at every Olympics. (Vancouver is no different. One hundred thousand condoms were made available to the 7,000 athletes, coaches and athletic trainers housed in the two Athlete's Villages. Vancouver even introduced the Hurry Hard condom (seriously), marketing a phrase curlers use in their sport to get teammates to sweep the ice more vigorously).

Sydney, by comparison, handed out 70,000 condoms in the Olympic Village in 2000 only to air-lift in 20,000 more a week later. With three days to go, they ran out of those, too.

Olympic organizing committees long ago decided that when thousands of attractive, physically fit people gather in the same place for a few weeks it's socially responsible to supply protection.

In 2004, Carrie Sheinberg, an alpine skiing champ (pictured), told The Scotsman, Scotland's national newspaper, that while she wouldn't call what happens in the Athlete's Village an orgy she would term it "socially vigorous."

One Olympian recently called it "an adult Disney World."

Vancouver's waterside downtown Athlete's Village is all that, no doubt, with million dollar views of the city and the snowcapped mountains overlooking it. It will be sold off as condos after the Olympics.

Those who have seen the inside report there is a 45,000-square foot lounge, a post office, cafe. This one even has an art gallery.

And no shortage of perfect human forms walking around.

"It's really a question of which flavour do you like," American swimmer Nelson Diebel told The Scotsman. "The only thing you're deprived of is fat. If you're the rare athlete who likes sedentary bodies, you're out of luck."

Not really. That's what the Media Village is for.

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Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels.com
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Bo Knows Everything: Remembering Nike's Legendary Bo Jackson Ad Campaign

Bo Jackson and the "Bo Knows" campaign helped Nike finally overtake Reebook in the early 1990s.
Bo Jackson and the "Bo Knows" campaign helped Nike finally overtake Reebook in the early 1990s.
Mike Powell, Allsport/Getty Images

It may have been difficult for Nike to conceive of any athlete being able to do more for its company than Michael Jordan. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the Chicago Bulls star was omnipresent, helping turn their Air Jordan line of sneakers into a squeaky chorus in school hallways and gyms around the country. Even better, the company had scored big with “Just Do It,” an advertising slogan introduced in 1988 that became part of the public lexicon.

There was just one issue. In spite of Jordan’s growing popularity and their innovative advertising, Nike was still in second place behind Reebok. No other athlete on their roster could seemingly bridge the gap. Not even their new cross-training shoe endorsed by tennis pro John McEnroe was igniting excitement in the way the company had hoped.

In 1989, two major events changed all of that: An advertising copywriter was struck with inspiration, and two-sport athlete Bo Jackson slammed a first-inning home run during the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. The ad man’s idea was to portray Jackson as being able to do just about anything. Jackson went ahead and proved him right.

 

Bo Jackson was an ideal spokesperson for Nike's new line of cross-training sneakers. The Auburn University graduate was making waves as a rare two-sport pro athlete; he was playing baseball for the Kansas City Royals and football for the Los Angeles Raiders. Early commercials featured Jackson sampling other sporting activities like riding a bike. “Now, when’s that Tour de France?” he asked. In another, he dunked a basketball and pondered the potential of “Air Bo.”

At a Portland bar near Nike’s headquarters one evening, Nike vice president of marketing Tom Clarke and Jim Riswold of ad agency Wieden + Kennedy were pondering how best to use Jackson going forward. Clarke wanted to devote the majority of their budget for the cross-trainers to an ad campaign featuring the athlete. The two started lobbing ideas about other people named Bo—Bo Derek, Beau Brummell, Little Bo Peep, and Bo Diddley, among others.

The last one stuck with Riswold. He thought of a phrase—“Bo, you don’t know Diddley”—and went home to sleep on it. When he woke up the next morning, he was able to sketch out an entire commercial premise in minutes. Riswold envisioned a spot in which Jackson would try his hand at other sports, punctuating each with a “Bo Knows” proclamation. Jackson soon realizes the one thing he can’t do is play guitar with Bo Diddley, the legendary musician.

It took longer to shoot the commercial than to conceive of it. The spot was shot over the course of a month, with the crew going to California, Florida, and Kansas to film cameos with other athletes including Jordan, McEnroe, and Wayne Gretzky—all of whom Nike had under personal appearance contracts.

Fearing Jackson might hurt himself trying to skate, the production filmed him from the knees up sliding around in socks at a University of Kansas gymnasium rather than on ice. But not all attempts at caution were successful. When director Joe Pytka grew frustrated that Jackson kept running off-camera and implored him to move in a straight line, Jackson steamrolled both the equipment and Pytka, who had to tend to a bloody nose before continuing.

In portraying any other athlete this way, the campaign may have come off as stretching credulity. But Jackson had already been improving his game in all areas, hitting a 515-foot home run during a spring training win over the Boston Red Sox. In April, he hit .282 and tallied eight home runs. Even when he struck out, he still stood out: Jackson was prone to breaking his bat over his knee in frustration.

 

After Jackson was voted into the 1989 MLB All-Star Game in July, Nike decided the telecast would be the ideal place to debut their Bo Knows campaign. They handed out Bo Knows pennants for fans and even flew Bo Knows signs overhead. Bo Knows appeared in a full-page spot for USA Today. Even by Nike standards, this was big.

There was, of course, a chance Jackson would be in a bat-breaking mood, which might diminish the commercial’s impact. But in the very first inning, Jackson sent one into the stands off pitcher Rick Reuschel. With a little scrambling, Nike was able to get their ad moved up from the fourth inning, where it was originally scheduled to run. In the broadcast booth, announcer Vin Scully and special guest, former president Ronald Reagan, marveled at Jackson’s prowess. Scully reminded viewers that his pro football career was something Jackson once described as a “hobby.”

A Bo Jackson fan is pictured holding up a 'Bo Knows Baseball!' sign at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California on July 11, 1989
A Bo Jackson fan shows his support at the MLB All-Star Game in Anaheim, California on July 11, 1989.
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Jackson was named the Most Valuable Player of the game. That summer and into the fall, Bo Knows was quickly moving up the ranks of the most pervasive commercial spots in memory, second only to Jordan’s memorable ads for Nike and McDonald’s. Jackson turned up in sequels, trying his hand at everything from surfing to soccer to cricket. Special effects artists created multiple Bo Jacksons, a seemingly supernatural explanation for why he excelled at everything.

It was a myth, but one rooted in reality. After 92 wins with the Royals as a left-fielder in 1989, Jackson reported for the NFL season that fall as a running back for the Raiders. In one three-game stretch, he ran for over 100 yards each. Against the Cincinnati Bengals in November, Jackson ran 92 yards for a touchdown. He finished the season with 950 rushing yards. That winter, he was named to the Pro Bowl, making him the only athlete to appear in two all-star games for two major North American sports in consecutive seasons.

Nike was staggered by the results of Bo Knows, which helped them leap over Reebok to become the top athletic shoe company. They eventually secured 80 percent of the cross-training shoe market, going from $40 million in sales to $400 million, a feat that executives attributed in large part to Jackson. Bo Knows, bolstered by Jackson’s demonstrated versatility, was the perfect marriage of concept and talent. His stature as a spokesperson rose, and he appeared in spots for AT&T and Mountain Dew Sport, earning a reported $2 million a year for endorsements. A viewer survey named him the most persuasive athlete in advertising. If that weren’t enough, Jackson also appeared in the popular Nintendo Entertainment System game Tecmo Bowl and on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1989.

 

In 1991, Jackson suffered a serious hip injury during a Raiders game, one that permanently derailed his football career. He played three more seasons of baseball with the Chicago White Sox and California Angels before retiring from sports in 1994.

Jackson's relationship with Nike was dissolved soon after, though the company never totally abandoned the concept of athletes wading into new territory. In 2004, a campaign depicted big names sampling other activities. Tennis great Andre Agassi suited up for the Boston Red Sox; cyclist Lance Armstrong was seen boxing; Serena Williams played beach volleyball. The Bo Knows DNA ran throughout.

Jackson still makes periodic references to the campaign, including in advertisements for his Bo Jackson Signature Foods. (“Bo Knows Meat,” the website proclaims.) In 2019, Jackson also appeared in a Sprint commercial that aimed for surrealism, with Jackson holding a mermaid playing a keytar and having a robot intone that “Bo does know” something about cell phone carriers.

The other key Bo—Diddley—never quite understood why the campaign worked. After seeing the commercial, he reportedly said that he was confused because it had nothing to do with shoes.