Olympic Hospitality Houses Are a Place to Cry and Party During the Games
Olympic hospitality houses were originally intended to be a place for athletes and their families. Now, like with everything else Olympic related, they've become something completely different.
Photo by Aaron Gordon
VICE Sports staff writer Aaron Gordon is in Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics and filing daily dispatches.
The Heineken Holland House, in a converted club in the wealthy Leblon neighborhood of Rio, has a cry room. To get there, you must walk past the pool and swim-up bar and the two-story video screen showing the Olympics, go up the stairs to the second level past the engraving machine, and continue along the railing past the Dutch DJs spinning tracks every night of the 2016 Olympics. But it's there.
The cry room—a private area with a few phone booth-sized soundproof rooms and a couch where athletes can literally cry, or release any emotion after a medal win—harkens back to a more private era of the Heineken Holland House and its original purpose to be an oasis for athletes and their families. Prior to the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Heineken's corporate marketing team had heard that athletes' families were generally not allowed in the Olympic Village, even though Dutch athletes wanted to see their loved ones, particularly after winning a medal. Understandably, they wanted to share their accomplishments with their families as soon as possible, but had no place to do it.
So Heineken partnered with the Dutch Olympic Committee to create the first Olympic hospitality house. In 1992, it was just a tent set up on the Port of Barcelona where athletes and their families could get together.
Like everything else related to the Olympics, it has grown and scaled to become something almost unrecognizable from its original iteration. At Sydney 2000, the hospitality house allowed anyone to visit for the first time, and it was quickly overwhelmed.
"People were knocking on the door and pretending that they're Dutch, trying to say Dutch sentences that they didn't know what it meant to get in," said Heineken director of global sponsorship Hans Erik Tuijt, who worked in Australia for Heineken at the time and has been to every Heineken Holland House since, with the exception of Salt Lake City in 2002.
Other countries took notice of the house's success. This year, there are more than 35 Olympic committee-affiliated hospitality houses around Rio, with 27 listed on the official Rio 2016 website. Most allow anyone to enter—although you may have to purchase a ticket in advance—but some, such as the Canadian, Chinese, British, Italian, Polish, and USA houses, are exclusive to athletes, their families, and other select invitees.
(VICE Sports declined an invitation to attend a media tour of the Team USA House because the United States Olympic Committee required journalists to sign a waiver stating, among other things, that they would "not disparage the USOC, U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes and hopefuls, and/or the Olympic and Paralympic movements in the United States.")
Several companies, such as Nike and the NBA, have created their own houses independent of any Olympic committee. Nike has two hospitality houses: the Copa House, home of their marketing and communications team, which is a penthouse on the 15th floor of a residential building overlooking the beach volleyball arena on Copacabana; and the Nike House in Barra near Olympic Park, which is the main site for athletes.
Although each house has a different theme, most borrow from the Heineken Holland House model. There is a place for athletes to relax in luxury, some bit of imported culture from their native land, a showcase for business opportunities in the country, and, most importantly, they say, a dedicated spot for athletes who medal to be celebrated for their accomplishments. All have gift shops.
Most hospitality houses also have some gimmick tangentially related to their home country. The South Korean house features "a classic carioca beach party with taekwondo demonstrations, breakdancing and Korean music. There will also be winter sports demonstrations" because Korea is hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. The Swiss house has a "synthetic outdoor skating rink," the Africa house (all the African NOCs combined for one hospitality house) has a "56 seat airplane simulator," the Danish house has a model of Rio made of Legos, and the Hungary house has a "water bar" with "16 different kinds of mineral water."
[Red markers denote invite-only houses. Descriptions come from the official Rio 2016 website]
Tuijt is flattered the idea has spread to other countries. "Good ideas always get copied," he said. "So, it's a compliment, thank you." That being said, his graciousness may come from a sense of superiority. "I still think that when I see all the houses, they haven't crushed it like we've done," he said.
The Heineken Holland House's first cry room appeared during the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. After an athlete medals, they participate in interviews, doping control, and other IOC-regulated activities that don't leave a lot of emotional or physical space. The athletes, Tuijt says, don't have time to process that the years of sacrifice—both by them and their families—have paid off in the ultimate way. Often, it's not until they're sitting somewhere hours later that the emotions hit. And when they hit, they're a torrent, like a tropical storm making landfall. It's a moving sight, but not necessarily a pretty one.
When asked if a lot of athletes use the cry room, Tuijt replied, "Oh yes. Oh yes."
As one might expect from a hospitality house brought to you by booze, the Heineken Holland House has fewer gimmicks than other hospitality houses. Over the years, its focus has shifted slightly from an athlete oasis to a party venue, a reputation cemented in 2012 when it took over Alexandra Palace, the historic venue in London.
In Rio, almost every night, they sell 4,000 tickets for entry to the club at 45 Euros each for non-Dutch people. Some of the club's staff estimated the crowd was roughly 40 percent Dutch, 40 percent Brazilian, and 20 percent other nationalities on average. They had sold out on Saturday night when I stopped by.
The house is staffed by roughly 200 Dutch volunteers, chosen out of an applicant pool of 3,000. Heineken hired a firm to vet the volunteers for "friendliness and enthusiasm," although every single volunteer I saw was also objectively attractive. After being selected, the volunteers were flown to Rio and put up in a hotel about five kilometers from the club. Heineken also flew over bikes for their daily commutes (the bikes will be donated to Rio residents after the games).
Despite the club atmosphere, Tuijt stressed the house is still for the athletes, first and foremost. Aside from the cry room, they have their own private lounge. When the Dutch athletes got to Rio and found the Olympic Village not quite completed, Tuijt says they sent 15 volunteers to fix it up and hired a few contractors to handle the electrical and plumbing work.
Tuijt balked at the suggestion that the bigger scale and club atmosphere has changed the house's purpose. "I think we could make money out of this," he said. "We could get 10,000 people in here." But, with a reference back to the inclusiveness of the 1992 tent, he added, "it wouldn't feel that same feel anymore."
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