YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Party time at the London Olympics national hospitality houses

In London, Olympic pavilions open their doors to fans who want to express their national pride. Offerings include art, music, food and big-screen TVs.

August 10, 2012|By Bill Shaikin
  • Dutch gymnast Epke Zonderland celebrates his gold medal in the horizontal bar at the Holland House on Tuesday.
Dutch gymnast Epke Zonderland celebrates his gold medal in the horizontal… (Koen Suyk / EPA )

LONDON — It was close to midnight and miles from the nearest venue, and the liveliest medal ceremony of the Olympic Games was underway.

An orange-topped mascot pumped up a cavernous hall, packed with thousands of fans sporting orange shirts, orange pants, orange blazers and orange hats. The music throbbed, three medalists descended triumphantly from a staircase and fans and athletes sang and danced as one. One of the athletes — and his bronze medal — happily leaped from the stage and let the fans pass him back and forth over their collective shoulders.

"Dutch people can party, eh?" said Adelinde Cornelissen, feted as a conquering hero here after winning the silver medal in the individual dressage.

PHOTOS: London Olympics, Day 14

They can and they do, nightly, at the Holland House, the loudest of all the national hospitality pavilions to pop up around London during the Games.

While Olympic Park is on the eastern fringe of town, the pavilions bring the spirit of the Games to the heart of London — to the British public without tickets to the Olympics, to travelers longing for a taste of home and to spectators intrigued by the international exhibitions.

"You need some down time between the excitement of the events," said Marcus Gibson, a London-based technology analyst and former journalist. "The pavilions are a great place to have some down time and explore another country's culture."

The template: Share the art of your country, sell traditional food and drink, present live music every night, sell national team gear and provide a gathering place to watch the Games on big-screen television. Gibson said he was disappointed when the Belgian House switched off the television one night so a folk guitarist and puppet show could take the stage.

"They said people were getting too excited," he said.

At the Italian House, in a conference center in the shadow of Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, fans can indulge in wine tasting, learn ways to use Parmesan cheese beyond sprinkling it atop spaghetti and sample 12 flavors of gelato from a circular freezer controlled by a foot pedal.

Roger Federer stopped by the Swiss House to share his silver medal with his countrymen. The house encompasses a church courtyard and nearby pub at the foot of London Bridge, and visitors can dine on fondue from a chef who helped cater the royal wedding, try fine chocolates made in front of their eyes and imagine themselves in the Alps as they scale a rock-climbing wall and rappel down.

"Really exciting," said Prafulla Shimpi of London, a first-time climber. "Quite calorie-burning."

The Olympics next visit Russia and Brazil, and the exhibitions for both countries feature a countdown clock — 545 days as of Saturday to the start of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, 1,455 days to the start of the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.

The Brazilian house offers a 3-D simulation of paragliding over Rio. The Russian house counters with a simulated bobsled ride, complete with cold air blowing in your face and crowd noise piped in.

Yet, beyond the attractions, Russia and Brazil highlight what might well become their Olympic talking points.

The Russian exhibition started with an introductory travelogue that included this line: "Contrary to some popular opinions, Russia is an extremely hospitable place."

In the text of a Brazilian cultural display, this message was clear: We'll use the Games to show you we are a modern country, but modern civilization need not equate to Western civilization.

As the display read: "Can roast beef be considered, in any sense, more civilized than sushi?"

Brazil might wish to use the Games to shed its perceived image as a party-first nation, but Holland is secure enough in its identity to revel in the party-first atmosphere of the Holland House — or, to be exact, the Holland Heineken House.

The Dutch beer giant has sponsored the event since 1992, when the Netherlands Olympic Committee asked for help in creating a home away from home for Dutch fans and athletes. Two decades later, this is the most renowned of all the national hospitality houses, with more than 100,000 fans expected to pack a 19th century palace during the Games.

Heineken executive Freek de Wette traces the success to the lack of deference toward corporate sponsors and athletic officials — or, as he calls them, the "bobos." Put the fans first, he said, and they will come.

"The VIPs? You need them," he said. "But don't make them the priority."

The United States takes a different approach. The USA House is closed to the public — unless, that is, you want to shop for some Team USA gear, including Ralph Lauren T-shirts priced at $28, polo shirts at $55 and polo blazers at $598.

Los Angeles Times Articles