Olympic $uperstars

By Michelle Kaufman
McClatchy Newspapers
BEIJING - The Brazilian soccer team checked into the Olympic Athletes Village on Monday, and chaos ensued. Ronaldinho, AC Milan’s $37 million star, tried to stand in line with a tray at the 5,000-seat cafeteria, and was mobbed by volunteers and other athletes seeking autographs and photos.
The ever-smiling Ronaldinho tried to accommodate his fans, but things got so out of hand he had to be escorted to a seat by security guards and somebody else went through the line for him. The Brazilian team cut its lunch short because players felt trapped by their peers.
Similar scenes have erupted around tennis No. 1 Rafael Nadal of Spain, Chinese NBA star Yao Ming and German NBA star Dirk Nowitzki (both got custom 8-foot beds), and Argentine soccer hero Lionel Messi, all of whom turned down posh hotel digs for a chance to slum it with kayakers and archers in the Athletes Village.
They are sharing apartments with two to four roommates, eating in the dining hall, taking buses to venues, and passing the free time in the Internet cafe, fitness center and game room. The village houses 16,000 guests in 42 high-rise buildings. Each bedroom has a bed, night stand, lamp, mirror, closet, and the walls are decorated with artwork drawn by Beijing schoolchildren. The rooms have no televisions and no internet access.
The U.S. men’s and women’s basketball teams opted to stay at the five-star Intercontinental Hotel in the financial district, but they have visited the Village often and eaten some meals there. To a man, the U.S. players said they did not want to feel isolated, like the 2004 team, which stayed on the luxury QEII cruise ship off the Greek coast. Nevertheless, they can’t stroll around the Village like normal athletes. Every time they visit, they get swarmed.
In 2004, we were kind of disassociated with everyone, because we were staying on a ship and not with everyone in the Olympic Village,'' said the Miami Heat's Dwayne Wade. We’ve gone to the Village a lot and ate in the cafeteria. We’ve taken a million and three pictures and signed a million and three autographs. Everyone is living it up. It’s totally different from 2004, when I did not get to experience the Olympic experience.’’
Added Carlos Boozer: Everyone on this team wants to be with the other athletes, and if we could stay in the Village 24-7 and have some privacy, we would. But it's impossible. We would not be able to move, especially Kobe. But we go to the Village a lot and it's been really cool to meet Nadal and Michael Phelps and Venus and Serena.'' Boozer has been amazed at how much other athletes know about the NBA. Some guy will walk up and say, ‘Hey, Carlos, great season last year,’ and I’m like, ‘Aren’t you an Australian water polo player? How do you know about me?’ I’m having a blast.’’
The U.S. basketball players travel in their own private bus, and security guards are always nearby. Otherwise, they have tried to blend in as much as an NBA-sized superstar can blend in among table tennis players and gymnasts.
We're like the Beatles over here,'' Chris Paul said. Tennis players Roger Federer and Venus and Serena Williams also stayed in a first-class hotel. It was quite difficult in Athens,’’ Federer said of the 2004 Olympics. Taking the bus and not being in control of my own schedule, and many people recognizing me in the Village. It was not as enjoyable as Sydney, which I loved.'' Federer wasn't famous yet in Sydney, so he could move more freely. The Swiss is known to be very fastidious about his schedule, and values his privacy. Nadal, on the other hand, has been staying in the Village since the Opening Ceremonies and loving it. After winning the gold medal, he said he might not have done it had he been staying in a hotel. It’s very different from the regular tournaments on the tour. You are in the Olympic Village, so it’s always very nice to be with the rest of the sportsmen of the world,’’ Nadal said. The reason I won this title is probably because I had a fantastic time here, enjoying a lot in the Village. Thank you to the other Spanish athletes for coming to support me. It was an amazing experience.'' Like the other multi-millionaires, Nadal is besieged for autographs and photos, but he embraces the inconvenience. Perhaps it's because he's a laid-back kid from Mallorca. Or maybe it's because this is all fairly new to him. I did some photos. I did some autographs. But always was a pleasure because I did with another sportsman. That’s always a very good feeling, have a photo with another sportsman like me, no?’’
Nowitzki agreed. He is staying in the German house with other German Olympians, and has made it a point to attend as many other sports as possible. So far, he has watched handball, field hockey, swimming, beach volleyball, and table tennis.
I am having a blast there,'' Nowitzki said. I’m getting to know the German handball team, and the men’s and women’s field hockey teams, and our table tennis and track athletes. The workers have been pretty aggressive about getting autographs and photos, but the other athletes have respected me. It’s a different experience from staying in a hotel.’’
U.S. tennis player James Blake had initially checked into a hotel, but checked out after one night and moved to the Village. He is one of the rare professional tennis players who went to college, so communal living does not turn him off. On the contrary.
At the hotel, it seemed like every other tournament,'' Blake said. That’s what we usually do, go from the hotel to the courts. The first time I had a meal in the Village, I saw the excitement of all the athletes, and since it was so early in the week, everyone has that Olympic ideal, that feeling like they’re going to be on the gold medal stand. That, to me, is thrilling.
I can deal with the smaller quarters, the sharing the rooms. I lived in dorms in college. It's not a big deal to me. Food, same thing, dining hall. We always get McDonald's. You can get something you know. I love it there.'' As for posing for photos with other athletes, Blake said the more the merrier. Generally, I’m just as impressed with the person I’m taking the picture with as they are with me. I love staying there. And I love seeing other sports. I went to badminton, which I think I’d be good at, but Jarkko Nieminen’s wife plays and he told me I wouldn’t get a point off her. The whole experience has been thrilling.’’
Andy Murray, the Scottish tennis player, agreed with Blake.
Quite a few of the tennis players are staying in hotels, but I don't understand why they're doing that,'' he said. Having made the decision to play in the Olympics, I wouldn’t want to be staying anywhere other than in the Athletes’ Village.’’
Bryant, a huge soccer fan from his days in Italy, said he was excited to meet the Argentine team and was looking forward to seeing the Brazilians, especially Ronaldinho. He also asked swimmers Michael Phelps and Dara Torres to pose for a picture with him. It was an odd reversal of roles for the basketball icon, and a confirmation that the Olympic Athletes Village is like no other place on earth.

The richest Olympians (source Forbes, Sports Illustrated, Miami Herald research)

  1. Kobe Bryant ($39 million annual salary/endorsements)
  2. LeBron James ($38 million)
  3. Ronaldinho ($37 million)
    (tie) 4. Roger Federer and Lionel Messi ($35 million)
  4. Yao Ming ($29 million)
  5. Dwyane Wade ($27 million)
  6. Dirk Nowitzki ($25 million)
  7. Carmelo Anthony ($23 million)
  8. Dwight Howard ($21.5 million)
  9. Jason Kidd ($20 million)
    Top women: Serena Williams ($12.5 million) and Venus Williams ($6.5 million)