SA athletes among those who chill out in alternative village
On the other side of London from the frenzy and commotion of the Olympic Park, a hundred competitors are training and relaxing in a more chilled-out, alternative Athletes’ Village.
Largely from China, Japan and South Africa, they have snubbed the free accommodation on the park in Stratford, east London, opting instead to stay in a leafy university campus more than an hour away, where the vibe is calmer.
St Mary’s University College in Twickenham, west London, is in the shadow of England’s national rugby stadium.
There, competitors can eat in restaurants rather than a canteen, walk to the athletics track rather than take a bus, and enjoy the calm of leafy, comfortable suburbia.
“It’s hectic on the Olympic Park,” said Hezekiel Sepeng, the South African athletics squad manager.
“You see a lot of media, they want interviews. You have to take the bus,” said the 800m silver medallist from the 1996 Atlanta Games.
On the Olympic Park, “everything is under control. At St Mary’s, things are controlled by us”, he told AFP.
South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius, who became the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics, trained here in July before running in the 400m, a journey which ended Sunday in the semi-finals.
His performance in front of 80,000 spectators may have made headlines around the world but away from the track, the 25-year-old is a quiet man who would have been right at home in the tranquility of Twickenham.
“We wanted our athletes to be in a relaxing atmosphere. You have to think about yourselves. It’s very important before the competition,” said Sepeng.
St Mary’s has a sports clinic and an altitude lab which helps athletes to train by simulating the conditions at high altitude.
They are used to dealing with elite sportsmen and -women, as the New Zealand rugby team often stay there when they are touring the British Isles.
Furthermore, the food is just as the athletes want it.
“The Japanese and Chinese brought their own cook,” said Dick Fisher, who is in charge of what he called the “little Olympic Village”.
The Japanese delegation have taken over the Dolce Vita Cafe at the university, while the Chinese are using the “Shannon Suite” conference room as their own private dining room.
It’s a far cry from the merry-go-round of the Athletes’ Village on the Olympic Park, where the canteen can feed 5,000 at any given time, and the McDonald’s serves free burgers, fries and milkshakes.
The Chinese and Japanese have asked the university to buy five bicycles for them, which will later be raffled off to students once they return from their summer break.
“We feel at home,” said Liang Songli, the Chinese women’s marathon coach, with a stopwatch round his neck, his eyes fixed on his athletes warming up.
On the Olympic Village, the 10,500 athletes are sharing twin rooms.
But one of the perks of staying at St Mary’s is that they have a room to themselves with their own bathroom, in university halls built in the typically British red-brick style, but now given an international twist with flags hanging out of the windows.
At St Mary’s, “they are not disturbed by people’s snoring”, the university’s spokeswoman Marina Boor said with a grin.