LONDON: Besides the battle for sporting glory at London 2012, another intense Olympic competition is taking place beyond the stadiums: the contest for the best national hospitality houses.
Around 20 countries have set up a headquarters in the British capital, transforming some of the city’s finest buildings into bases such as “Club France,” “Casa Brasil,” “Casa Italia” or “Sochi Park.”
Athletes, VIPs, business chiefs, sports fans, expats and passers-by can join in the cultural, sporting or culinary festivities being rolled out.
On the menu are receptions to toast medallists, sporting action on big screens, shows and concerts. Not to mention the bars and restaurants serving up national specialities.
The hospitality houses will be, in effect, a shop window for that country during the Games.
The phenomenon is not a new one. It generally started out with conference rooms in hotels for small-scale gatherings but has snowballed with each Olympic Games and now encompasses a mini-cultural festival.
London may have edged out Paris for the right to host the 2012 Games but that has not stopped France going all-out in the hospitality house stakes.
The French Olympic Village has taken over the Old Billingsgate Market, formerly the world’s largest fish market, on the banks of the River Thames, which boasts 7,000 square meters of space and can host around 3,500 people – as opposed to the space big enough for 600 that France had in Beijing 2008.
Live television and radio broadcasts will take place from the center, which the public will have access to for the first time.
The hospitality house, which is the biggest and most expensive ever installed by France, is an “ambitious project,” admitted Denis Masseglia, president of the French National Olympic and Sporting Committee.
The cost of the venue reached 1.8 million euros ($2.2 million), before taking into account running costs.
But France can count on competition from Russia and Brazil – respective hosts of the Sochi winter Olympics in 2014 and Rio de Janeiro summer Olympics in 2016 – who are also determined to make their mark.
Moscow, which has let it be known that President Vladimir Putin may come to London for the Games, is taking up residence in the plush Kensington Gardens for “the biggest Russian event ever held in the U.K.”
Its 10,000 sq m Russia Park will be an open-air “festival-style fun park with Russian culture, cuisine and sport, and appearances by leading Olympians.”
Sochi Park will give a foretaste of the Russian winter, its 6,000 sq m pavilion promoting the next Olympic city and boasting an ice skating rink where its champions will glide out.
Somerset House, a vast neo-classical building on the north bank of the Thames and ordinarily one of the biggest cultural spaces in London, will be transformed into “Casa Brasil,” to celebrate the sporting success of the vast South American country, “its cultural richness and beauty.”
In the face of these giants, smaller countries don’t want to be outdone.
For a fee of around 1.2 million euros, Italy will take up a 6,000-square-meter space in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, by Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, and turn it into a hotbed of “Italian excellence.”
Three Michelin-starred chefs will act as ambassadors of the country’s gastronomy, including the celebrated Massimo Bottura.
The 2012 Japan House is at the Royal Aeronautical Society by Hyde Park and aims to “build momentum” for Tokyo’s bid to host the 2020 Games by handing out information on Japan’s cultural and tourist attractions.
Alexandra Palace overlooking north London is being transformed into the Holland Heineken House, where the lager will flow amid a celebration of Dutch culture.
Switzerland has spent 3.7 million euros for the 3,000 square meters of the Glaziers Hall on the Thames by London Bridge, which will host concerts, screen films and stage children’s projects.
Meanwhile, African national Olympic committees are taking the plunge together at Kensington Gardens. Each evening, the continent’s medallists will head to Africa Village to celebrate.