The days leading up to the Summer Olympics here have been mostly cool, overcast and often drizzly. Like the boycott-diminished games themselves, which were officially declared open today, the city has been carrying on resolutely under gray clouds. But at least someone at the Beriozka souvenir shop at the Olympic Village has a sense of humor about what the Russians call "horse-radish weather."
When the frequent showers chase athletes and visitors indoors -- which is admittedly good for business -- the store's sound system plays two songs over and over again. First, an instrumental, muzak-like version of, "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." Then a cheery, English rendition, as it might have been sung by the amateur glee club of Murmansk, of that other Russian folk favorite, "Singing in the Rain."
Soviets love rock and roll and other Western pop music. Youngsters can't seem to get enough of it. There are a number of good Soviet rock bands, a few of which have been included in the extensive cultural program that accompanies the Olympics, and ranges from the Bolshoi Ballet to puppet theater, architectural tours, Ukrainian folk dancing and all kinds of expositions and performing arts from the 15 Soviet socialist republics.
At the large record and tape department at the Olympic village Beriozka, a three-record set of the speeches of President Leonid Brezhnev is prominently displayed next to classical works by the Moscow Philharmonic, but the young salespeople prefer to play pop albums in English. One day last week," "House of the Rising Sun" almost drowned out "Singing in the Rain."
Some of the drivers who shuttle athletes, press and tourists to the various Olympic sites in a fleet of new German-made buses that, unfortunately, leak when it rains, bring along radios and tape players, too.
There is something peculiar and mildly unsettling about riding along the banks of the serpentine Moscow River, past buildings with large placards paying tribute to Brezhnev and Vladimir Lenn as your Soviet driver turns up the volume on "Ain't No Cure for the Summertime Blues."
Even though the soggy weather that dominated the early days of last week was not very conducive to outdoor training, and created a bit of cabin fever, life is generally pleasant for the 7,000-plus athletes and team officials from 81 countries in residence at the Olympic Village, a sprawling and heavily guarded 64-acre complex in the southern outskirts of Moscow.
Teams are housed in 18 high-rise towers of 16 stories each, identical except the facing of half of the balconied, gray cement structures are painted in pastel blue and half in rose. The buildings are numbered consecutively 1 through 18, and team members are permitted entry only to their own without special permission.
The living quarters are spacious and comfortable, divided into two- and three-bedrooms apartments -- with a maximum of two persons to a room -- each with a bathroom, kitchen and living room. "Compared to the village at Lake Placid," said one Swedish official, recalling that athletes at the Winter Olympics in February were housed in buildings destined to become a minimum-security prison, "these are like suites at the Grand Hotel."
The accommodations provided by the Moscow Olympic Organizing Committee compare very favorably with those of recent Olympics. Also with the apartment in which the average citizen of Moscow -- a city with an acute housing shortage, where it is not uncommon for whole families to live in one- or two room flats -- dwells year-round.
In tours of the Olympic Village that they have given visitors since it was completed a year ago, Soviet officials say it is an average housing complex, and will be assigned to citizens after the games with no special priority list.
In fact, this is some of the most luxurious housing available in Moscow, and will be sold as cooperative apartments -- 50,000 roubles (about $75,000), cash on the barrelhead.
Steve Breheny and Gordon McLeod are guards on Australia's Olympic basketball team, which doesn't figure to make anyone forget the UCLA teams of John Wooden. They hope that they can finish in the top six in a tournament depleted by the boycott. But they are both first-time Olympians, happy to be in Moscow despite sometimes fierce political pressures at home to stay away.
They are delighted with the treatment they have received in the village. As is the case with many other teams, they have more room than they expected because the boycott has reduced total population at the village by about 5,000.
"We have a whole floor. It's supposed to accomodate 20, but we've only got 14" -- that's "four-dean," in the typical Aussie inflection -- "so we moved some of the beds and made one of the rooms into a big lounge," said Breheny, a 6-foot-3-inch guard from Melbourne.
"It's quite nice, really," McLeod said. "They even do the laundry for us -- pick it up, and send it back washed and ironed. We didn't expect that." u
They were sitting at one of the many snack bars, free to duly registered team delegations, in the "international zone" of the village, the only part open to visitors unless they have elaborate, advance, written invitations from a team's chef de mission.
At the time, they were munching ice cream -- Soviet versions of the Good Humor bar, a cylinder of creamy vanilla covered with a layer of chocolate that tastes rather like frozen tootsie-roll.
It was in between regular meal hours, but the counters were piled high with rolls and imported jam, yogurt from Finland, cakes, cookies, pastries and beverages. Except for the track suits, this could have been High Tea at Claridge's.
Food is plentiful and varied on the Olympic training table, including meat, fresh fruit and vegetables and other commodities that are hard to come by at other times in the Soviet Union. So it is at hotels, the press center and other venues for foreign visitors to the Olympics.
Everything seems available, from borscht to nuts. People who have visited the Soviet Union previously -- even during last summer's Spartakiad, the international sports festival that was used as a kind of dry run for the Olympics -- are amazed at how the Soviets have adjusted to the influx of foreign tourists and efficiently provided such unfamiliar western services as 24-hour restaurants and buffet breakfasts (pancakes, eggs any style, crepes, even cornflakes).
The hosts wanted to impress the foreigners, and in this sense they have done it. But there are guilt feelings among those visitors who know that large segments of the population of the Soviet Union and its satellite neighbors are going without meat, produce and other foodstuffs in order to stockpile Moscow for the Olympic fete.
"I feel like I'm visiting poor relatives and eating meals I know they can't afford," said one American journalist over a plate of fresh strawberries and powdered sugar.
"I know. A Czechoslovak friend told me there is a meat shortage at home because it has all been sent to Moscow. We hear the same thing about Poland, where it's creating unrest. I'm sure the other satellites have the same problem, and there are meager supplies in many parts of the Soviet Union," said a colleague. "We're dining like kings while all those people go without so they can put on this show.A bit obscene, isn't it?"
"The one thing that gets you down a little bit about the village is the security. Its prety tight," said Breheny, a typically affable Aussie who teaches physical education in Melbourne. "I guess it's necessary, but I think they overdo it a bit. Everywhere you go, they check your badge, search your bag, put you through a metal detector."
There is no American team at the village because the United States is one of about 50 countries boycotting the games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But there is an "American presence" in the form of the ubiquitous, airport-style metal detectors that are manufactured in California. The brand name: "Friskem."
The area around the village buildings is attractive, rolling meadow, made lush and green by the recent rains. The practice track is nestled in a picturesque setting, fronted by the golden statue of a discus thrower, and looks toward the city skyline to the north. The most notable sight is Moscow State University, built in the peculiar, gothic, fantasyland architectural genre that is common to seven massive buildings constructed in Moscow in the '40s and '50s, and known as "Stalin wedding cakes."
The village is roomy and attractive in a modernistic way, characterized by broad plazas and promenades, big chunks of marble, and lots of glass and mirrors. It is airy and cheerful, even more so because the staff is exceedingly friendly.
But the security presence is inescapable, as is the case all over Moscow which has been blanketed with police and soldiers for the Olympics. The village complex is surrounded by dual chain-link fences, manned at about 50-yard intervals by stern-looking sentries: csoldiers in khaki cloaks armed with AK47 attack rifles, the familiar Soviet "Kalashnikovs."
The border between the "international zone" and the team residence area is barricaded by what appear to be 10 little toll booths and a small building. The booths are for inspection of people leaving the living area, whose credentials and parcels are checked. The building is for people going into the living area. There the search is more complete. Step through the "Friskem," please.
As traffic at the village has increased so have the delays in gaining access, even to the "international zone." At times last week, it took visitors 90 minutes or more to get routine clearance.
The "international zone" contains a number of restaurants, shops and rooms for the athletes to relax, among them music rooms (called "audition centers"), a library, four chapels, a cinema and a discotheque.
The beriozka shop is well-stocked with souvenirs of all kinds. Lenin busts are plentiful but don't sell well. The most popular items seem to be Olympic stamps, pins and jewelry, embroidered goods and stuffed animals -- including, of course, the ever-present bear mascot of the Games named "Misha." His smiling face can be found on everything from candy bars to perfume.
Lapel pins are a popular item for trading at any Olympics and Moscow has its share. Misha for instance, can be found in many poses, signifying the 21 sports in the games. Misha with a basketball, Misha in a swimsuit, Misha dribbling a basketball.
One pin has been withdrawn by officials, and taken out of the shops, however. Perhaps to avoid unseemly reminders of, or references to, what is happening with Afthanistan. That is the shooting events pin: Misha with a rifle or a drawn pistol.
They are now considered a collector's item.
During the day, the favored place for atheletes to relax and unwind is the cinema. Every day an animated cartoon, a documentary short and a feature film are shown. The films are in Russian, but there is simultaneous translation into English and French.
One day last week the documentary was about a tiger named "Rachar." The cartoon was intriguingly titled "Guile and Love." The feature was "Spartacus," but it was the Russian ballet version, not the familiar Kirk Douglas classic. The "Spartacus" starred Vladimir Bassiliev, Natalie Besmertonova, Maris Liepa and Nina Timofeeva.
In the evening, the disco is the hot spot. For music, lights and dancing, but no drinks. "It's okay. They've tried to make it nice. But there are too many blokes and not enough sheilas," said the Aussie, Breheny. "It's about 3-to-1 blokes. You see some fellas dancin' with other fellas. That's not my scene. Besides, they close at quarter to 11."
Even at the Olympic Village, there is not much night life in Moscow. That was one of the apprehensions of Westners who knew the city well before the Olympics came here.
The city closes down early. There's no place for a visitor to go get a drink," noted a Moscow-based Irish diplomat. "Can you imagine, say, the reaction of the Irish boxing team on a day when they've lost every bout and just want to go out and get drunk, when the organizing committee tells them: "Tonight, as part of the cultural program, you will visit a special exhibition of postage stamps.'"