Olympic cheers, slainte and salut
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Some go to the Olympics with the goal of winning a gold medal, proof that after years of preparation, they are the best in the world at what they do. I had a loftier goal: I wanted to get a drink at every national hospitality house.
Trust me, this is not as easy as it seems. There are far too many houses and not nearly enough time. Maybe I wasn't paying proper attention before, but it seems there are more hospitality houses in Vancouver than at any previous Olympics. Some are set up for only the athletes and sponsors. Others are also for citizens attending the Games. Others are open to the public and designed to generate tourism. And some simply are there to take your money.
I didn't visit all of them -- I do, after all, have to cover events -- but I gave it at least a bronze-medal try. Well, close to bronze.
Jamaica Bobsleigh House: The Jamaican bobsled team did not qualify for the Olympics, and its national house shows it. Jamaica Bobsleigh House appears to be merely a converted bar at Whistler with a Jamaican flag and sign out front along with a $15 cover. Fifteen bucks just to go inside a bar, then pay even more money for drinks inside? It's an offense, a scandal. Hospitality houses should not have cover charges. Where is the Olympic spirit? Where is their decency? I refuse. No way will I go into a hospitality house that charges a cover. A man has to have his principles.
Morrissey Irish House: The cover charge here is $20, but that's OK because this time I am able to persuade the bouncer to let me in for free with my Olympic credential.
Morrissey Irish House is set up in an enormous white tent just off Granville Street (the Bourbon Street of the Olympics), and as near as I can tell, it has a stronger attachment to the Delta Tau Chi fraternity house than to Ireland or its six-athlete Olympic team. But it serves Irish beer and whiskey, so it must be legit, right?
The interior is roughly half the size of a football field, and from the looks of it, an entire college student body has just stormed the field after a big win. The place is so crowded that the bouncer warns me to put my credential inside my sweater. "They're snipping the lanyards and taking them," he tells me. Prices, of course, are exorbitant. I pay $8 for a glass of Jameson and receive what looks like half a shot. I send it back and ask for a full shot, and the waitress returns with a glass that has marginally more liquid. Either she poured only the barest amount of whiskey or she simply spit into it. After working five consecutive 12- to 18-hour days (including figure skating until 1 in the morning), at this point it doesn't matter to me.
Saxony House: No, Saxony is not a country; it's a German state. Still, it has a house just inside Stanley Park with a gorgeous view of the city and harbor. And admission is free. And it serves beer and brats. And there is no line. So I duck inside to find a packed house, $9 grilled sausages, a couple of travel brochures and a band that is playing what can best be described as rock-a-polka. I buy a sausage and find a Vancouverite who gives me the lowdown on Russia House.
Late at night, he's been told, the house is closed to the public, and they bring in booze, pole dancers and smokin' hot women. He has no proof of this, having visited the house only during the day when it is little more than one of those dull cultural exhibits you normally would see at a world's fair.
I don't know whether to believe any of this, but I make a mental note to visit Russia House only late at night.
USA House: Shhhh. I would tell you where to find USA House, but then folks in black helicopters would swoop in to transport me to Guantanamo for extreme rendition. The location is such a state secret that Dick Cheney must have stayed there during the Torino and Salt Lake City Games. USA House is closed to everyone but athletes, their families and sponsors. Which I'm cool with (except the sponsor part). After all, we're a huge country. Open the house to all American citizens, and it instantly would be overwhelmed like Ellis Island in the 1890s, with the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to drink free. Plus Yankees and Red Sox fans.
But why is there not even so much as identification on the house? We're the most powerful nation on Earth, yet we're afraid to put our name on the national hospitality house at the Olympics? Please.
Holland Heineken House: How can a hospitality house named for and run by a world-famous beer company go wrong? I'll tell you.
After the bouncer sternly tells me that my Olympic credential is of no value -- "I will, however, escort you to the back of the queue, where you can stand with everyone else" -- I wait in line for 20 minutes. It's good preparation for the HHH experience. I stand in line for five minutes for my beer only to have the bartender tell me that they don't accept cash. "You need to buy a Heineken card from one of the kiosks."
She points toward another long line. When I grimace, she says helpfully, "But you won't have to stand in this line again. When you get your card, just come back and I will serve you right away."
I thank her and go stand in line for my card. The guy in front of me says we're lucky -- a friend told him she had tried to get into Holland Heineken House four times without success. We mull over whether this means she was put off by the length of the line and walked away, or whether she waited and waited and waited only to be told at the end that Holland Heineken House is full and she can't get in. "Moose out front should have told you."
Five minutes later, I finally get to the front of the line and hand a woman $5 to put on a card, only to be told, "You must also pay a $5 deposit for the card." A deposit for the card? Are they nuts? It's just a plastic card with a magnetic strip of data, like a debit card. Why do I need to pay a $5 deposit? The woman mumbles some crap explanation, then tells me I can get a refund if I return it. Reluctantly, I hand her $10 and take my card back to the beer hall. I elbow my way through a mass of people and return to the helpful server, who smiles and takes my order. She fills a cup that holds maybe 10 ounces of beer, including the foam. It's $4.50.
It doesn't really matter. By now I just want to get the hell out. Only I have to get my deposit back first. Which requires another five-minute wait in a line designed to annoy people sufficiently that they give up and walk out without their refund.
French House: French House in Whistler is usually closed to the public, but France won two gold medals the day I visit, so they're all in a good mood and let me in. In fact, they keep asking whether I want more wine. I feel like an American GI liberating Paris.
I bend elbows with the host of French House, Alain Amade. This Olympic gig is a mere sideline for Amade. His real passion is the World Games, which is a quadrennial global athletic event for sports that are not in the Olympics. This is surprising news in that I had never heard of the World Games and, more importantly, hadn't realized there were sports that weren't in the Olympics. But apparently there are, including water skiing (Amade's daughter is the European champ) and roller skating. "It's like the Olympics were 30 years ago," Amade tells me. "We had 15,000 people watching roller skating. We had 300 athletes on the French team. We had 5,000 competitors in 30 different sports."
The next World Games are scheduled for 2013 in Cali, Colombia, and Amade makes it sound so appealing that I'm ready to badger my editor to go. Although I may feel differently after the wine wears off. I mean, synchronized swimming is bad enough, but roller skating?
Slovak House: The house is open to the public, but admission is $60 from noon to 3 p.m. and $115 from 6 p.m. to midnight. That sounds expensive, but the price gets you all you can eat and drink, and Slovakia, like the neighboring Czech Republic, makes great beer. Plus, compared to the prices for most everything else in the Olympics -- $36 for a cowbell! -- that $60 isn't a bad deal. I run into two Canadians who arrive precisely at noon and don't leave until they are politely but firmly asked to leave at 3. "We got our money's worth," they assure me.
House of Switzerland: Open to the public for breakfast, lunch and dinner, House of Switzerland serves up a mean plate of delicious raclette (melted cheese over potatoes) and good wine. I'm told there is a three-hour line to get into the other Swiss house down in Vancouver, but there's no wait in Whistler. So that three-hour wait might not have been measured with Swiss timing.
Slovenia House: Visitor Frank Mandeljc tells me that Slovenians are known for their laid-back lifestyle and habitual tardiness. He says that when God was handing out land, Slovenia woke up late, and by the time the country showed up, God had given away all the land. Slovenia persistently kept coming back until God relented and said, "I'm all out of land, but here's what I'll do. I'll give you a little slice of heaven instead." I believe him. Slovenia is an exquisite country, a secret jewel in the Balkans, and Slovenia House is dedicated to spreading the word.
Mandeljc is actually from Ontario -- his father emigrated from Slovenia -- and he drove all the way to Whistler to see the Olympics. Like everyone else, he heard about how crowded the Olympics would be and how impossible it would be to get any tickets and how expensive everything would be and how bad the traffic would be and how he should just stay home and watch it all on TV. He went anyway and found out that all the reports were wrong. Well, not about how expensive everything is, but all the other stuff. He shows me a photo of Bode Miller leaving the starting gate of the men's downhill, and I ask how he got it.
"I bought a lift ticket for $77, 20 percent off, at a 7-11 store in Squamish [about 45 minutes away], drove up and paid $30 for parking," he says. "I took the lift to the top of the downhill course. I was able to watch it for free. And then I got to ski down. Where there's a will, there's a way."
Russia House: I arrive just before 1 in the morning to find Russians piling out of logoed SUVs as if they were clowns bailing out of a circus car. The party, apparently, is still going strong. But not for me. I'm told I can't get in without arranging it through the media office first.
Disappointed, I walk away, but not before peeking through a window. I don't see any pole dancers. Just high-priced Russia caps, coats and scarves.
Austria House: And finally, my favorite house. Not only do the waiters wear lederhosen, but a smiling waitress wearing a dirndl thrusts a glass of beer into my hand before I can even ask. There is some sort of dessert on the bar and a menu of other food. It's like Thanksgiving with the von Trapp family, only better because there is no puppet show. Austria House is generally open only to athletes and accredited guests with an invitation, but I'm told that when the country medals, the house holds a public happy hour in the late afternoon.
So yes, I am now officially rooting for Austria to win every medal possible.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter at jimcaple.