By Adriane Quinlan
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 14, 2008
In the tangerine light, Ruben Houkes's bronze medal looks gold.
Not that it matters what color it is at the Holland Heineken House, where, less than five hours after he won the thing, the slight, 132-pound judo star is up onstage smooching Dutch royalty. "Now that I won a medal, I can kiss you, right?" he says, not to Princess Máxima but out to the audience -- a heaving, fist-pumping mass of 1,000-or-so sweaty beer-guzzlers who hoot in response.
Holland Heineken House, the 800,000-square-foot party palace occupying Beijing's Agricultural Exhibition Hall, is just one of nearly a dozen "national houses" or "national pavilions" for such countries as the United States, Brazil, Australia, Russia and Denmark -- though each venue dubs itself something slightly different, according to the image it seeks to project.
Italy and Holland take credit for starting the trend, as a reaction to the 1984 Los Angeles Games, when their fans gathered to hang out at specific restaurants. In 1992 the Netherlands Olympic Committee built a Heineken-sponsored dockside "house" in Barcelona, where revelers drank beer and watched the events on TV monitors beneath a splash of orange umbrellas. Other countries have followed suit, swathing hotels, bars and cafes in national bunting. Athletes prance in, bearing Olympic bling; political officials shake their hands; and rowdy, rooting fans clamor for autographs.
While the Dutch "orangeheads" (a nod to the Dutch royal family, which extends back to William of Orange) make partying their main mission, others have different goals. The Swiss want their house to attract vacation-planning Chinese; the Russians aim to show viewers back home that their athletes are having a swell time; Casa Brasil hopes to woo International Olympic Committee officials about a future bid; the Canadian Pavilion is about networking in China's expanding market; and the Americans -- wouldn't you know it? -- are far from welcoming (there's tight security, people), as VIPs schmooze for future sponsorships.
And in Beijing this year, nearly every house is the largest it has ever been. Switzerland occupies a former military factory. Team USA has settled into a dark, three-story karaoke-style nightclub. Britain serves gin and tonics from a Lucite bar plopped in the middle of a traditional courtyard-style mansion. Casa Italia is in an exhibition hall fronted by a Chinese rocket. (Inside, there are opera singers, a wine bar, a gelato stand . . . and a Ferrari.) And the Bosco Sport-sponsored Russia House -- where vodka is free, dancing is popular and access comes via boat rowed across a lake -- is a step up from even two years ago at the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, where the team was feted in a three-story playpen complete with ice rink.
But there's always one house that takes the gold for the sport of partying. In Salt Lake City, Holland paid to commandeer its own golf course. Its two-week bash on a yacht in Sydney Harbor in 2000 was declared the party of the games by Sports Illustrated. In Turin, when Holland's house reached capacity one night following a gold medal win for that country, only Dutch nationals were allowed inside. Freek de Wette, Heineken's international sports sponsorship coordinator and director of the house, recalls that Italians dressed in orange to squeeze past security, claiming to escort a footballer who wanted to remain undercover.It's All About the Beer
"The Dutchies consistently throw the best party at the Olympics," says Iain Davidson, a 23-year-old Australian who also visited the Dutch house during the Sydney Olympics. "And I mean this year -- this year is extreme," he says, gawking up at the vaulted exhibition hall ceiling. Onstage, Dutch popstar Jans Smit croons; later, DJ Ronald will blast techno beats.
The revelers include eight tall, lithe Dutch guys in orange cowboy hats, bug-eye sunglasses and orange silky shirts they had tailor-made in Bangkok, slugging from plastic cups of Heineken. Guus Daanen, 23, makes anyone who approaches their circle kiss the group's mascot -- a beer-soaked stuffed bunny attached to another dude's neck with a string. Girls in orange dresses dance on platforms. A couple leaning against the wall is kissing -- violently. Twirling through it all is Caroline Edam, dressed as a sort of star-shaped Olympic mascot, her hands and feet making up four of its points, her head popping through the silky gold fabric. "I'm nothing official," she says. "This is just for fun."
"Being just one enormous beer hall is just not true," Netherlands Olympic Committee spokeswoman Nathalie Smeeman says of the house. "The IOC told us we are the best house, the best example." It's hard to disagree with the IOC's assessment, but it's also hard to say that this place -- despite the two more upscale cafes elsewhere in the expo hall -- doesn't feel like one giant beer hall, what with the Heineken brand emblazoned everywhere.
Medal-winning athletes ride up to the building in a neon-orange rickshaw -- embodying class separation -- but just off the dance floor is Crown Prince Willem, wearing an orange tie with white jeans. "Dutch people are very casual," says de Wette. "I mean, we all know why Holland's famous. For its freedoms."
Yi Lei, a Beijinger, doesn't speak Dutch or English. No matter. She gets along fine here. "People from Holland are very friendly," she says in Chinese. "They're very free."Pleasure and Business
The party scene is much different at Great Britain's London House, as an over-40 crowd in cocktail attire sips white wine at the Chinese-style courtyard outfitted by designer David Grant. "One thousand [drunk] people is not what we want," says Grant. "If I was having a night off, if I wanted to hang out with 1,000 Dutch backpackers, I might go there." Ooh, sizzle, snap.
London would rather lure moneyed Chinese investors into building projects for its 2012 Games. Says the city's deputy mayor, Ian Clement: "My message to you is that we're here to do business!" Across town at Canada House, with its fluorescent display gallery that celebrates the natural resources of the 2010 Winter Games host country, communication director Donald McDonald reports that Canadian and Chinese companies have signed 600 contracts since May. ( Boooorrrrrring.)
Over in Beijing's swank gallery district is the Swiss national house. "Nobody would expect to get completely wasted in Switzerland," says the house's designer, Manuel Salchli. "We do have parties, but they're upscale." He notes a glassed-in VIP lounge and a gourmet menu that includes such dishes as "Siedfleisch terrine with horseradish foam." Last week, the house welcomed models who pranced around in lingerie for a fashion show. This week, there's a Lindt chocolatier who performs demonstrations, a booth that sells high-tech watches, and a photo op where guests can mug for the camera while swinging from a ski-lift chair in front of a wallpapered mountain backdrop.
The house hopes to attract the Chinese, who, says Marketing Head Kieu D. Tran, often swing through Switzerland on multi-country European tours -- but only for a day. "They think of Switzerland and they think of some good chocolates, some cheese, some clean waters," she says. Salchli chimes in: "We wanted to show the Swiss eye for details, for innovation, how dynamic Switzerland is." One booth shows a full-scale model of the Mars rover, which runs on an engine designed by a Swiss company.
Meanwhile, at Russia House -- planted smack in the center of the nightlife scene at the northern shore of club-heavy Houhai Lake -- the doors remain barred to all but Russians, media and celebrities. The night before the Opening Ceremonies, blondes in slim cheongsam check names off VIP lists, while Chinese police shoulder out hundreds of local gawkers. Inside the former Chinese banquet hall -- now swathed in red bunting and Russian flags -- Russian news crews document the party scene for domestic consumption. "We want to show that Russian athletes are not sitting in their rooms alone in the Olympic Village," says Russia House spokesman Pavel Nefedov, talking with his hands and a thick Russian accent. "People want to see you are having fun being Russian."
The biggest change from Olympics past -- aside from scale -- has been the added challenge of working in China, some house organizers say.
Dutch organizers report translating every word to be sung by every performer into Chinese, to pass censorship laws (no Tibeting Bjorks here). And organizers were told they could not import food products. "The biggest problem was trying to figure out a way to import the beer," reports Michael Schirp at Germany House. He ended up procuring nearly 8,000 gallons of 4.8 percent alcohol Warsteiner beer, though he would not reveal how. (At the Holland house, the more than 20,000 gallons of Heineken came from its Chinese brewery.) Another Holland house challenge: How to bake traditional bitterballen (a meatball snack) from scratch with Chinese ingredients. (This reporter's palate considered it a mushy hamburger bun soaked in meat ooze.)
Others complained about inefficiency. "If you ask someone to fix a leaky pipe in the States, they don't just stand around and then, four days later, wait for you to ask again," says Jerri Foehrkolb, the U.S. Olympic Committee's managing director for events and services. Harrumph.. . . And Just Business
And what of USA House? It is quiet. Shhh. The house functions as the lavish headquarters of the U.S. Olympic Committee, which says its goal is to sign deals with sponsors for future Olympics. Its high security and exclusivity mean that even an athlete is given only two passes. Occupying a former exclusive nightclub whose decoration Foehrkolb "can only really call 'Gothic,' " the place retains the club feel, despite a coat of white paint. Working at past Olympics, Foehrkolb recalls seeing American fans feel disappointed when turned away at the door. "They understand when we explain what we do. We're a business, and we're here to entertain investors. We're not a place for hospitality."
So, where do the hordes go to feel welcome?
They go here, back at the Holland Heineken House, of course, where at 1 a.m. tourists are still flooding in and Crissy Autry, a 26-year-old professional softball player from Houston, is grabbing some air outside by a row of Ping-Pong tables with orange balls.
"At the Olympics, the U.S. plays well, but the Dutch have good parties," she says. "It's just how the Dutch are -- the space between people is much smaller." A Dutch guy she knows comes up, pecks her on the cheek, squeezes her waist and heads off to find a drink. "If I were in the U.S., you'd think he was my boyfriend."
Here, that's just how the Holland house party rolls.