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Inside London's Olympic Village: World's top athletes to share college dorm-style rooms

Olivia Harris / Reuters

London's Olympic Village will accommodate up to 16,000 athletes and officials from more than 200 nations.

LONDON -- What will it be like for athletes like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt as they eat, sleep and relax at London's $1.5-billion Olympic Village? Think somewhere between a college dorm and freshly-painted motel.

In the first of a series of "Olympic sleepovers" designed to road-test the facilities, msnbc.com was invited to spend the night in the vast complex.

The verdict? Apartments are light and airy but far from luxurious: Only some have en-suite bathrooms, even fewer have balconies and there are no kitchens as all cooking will be done in a 24-hour cafeteria that seats 5,000.

In shared sleeping spaces, beds are close together and most furniture is of the functional, self-assembly variety. (Spare a thought for workers who had to put together more than 9,000 cabinets and wardrobes.) Mattresses were chosen by a committee of athletes but are built for function rather than indulgence.

Alastair Jamieson for msnbc.com

Msnbc.com's bed in the Olympic Village. Which of the world's top athletes will occupy it next?

The pristine white walls and blackout curtains are livened by beanbags and chairs in the now-familiar bright neon colors of the London 2012 logo, and there are televisions with 28 channels including live feeds of all the Olympic events. Duvet covers bear the words "excellence, friendship and respect."

All of the beds are single and walls are thin -- which may disappoint those hoping to burn off calories with the help of fellow competitors.

There's not much opportunity for mischief in the village's bar, either. Named after Shakespeare's Globe Theater, it offers 10 pool tables, a private cinema and a computer gaming area – but no alcohol. "Not all the competitors are of legal drinking age and, besides, you don’t want to put temptation in peoples' way," one official told msnbc.com.

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Up to 16,000 athletes and officials from more than 200 nations will take up residence later this month in the high-security compound. The vast complex includes more than 2.7 million square feet of living space and is adjacent to the Olympic Park in east London.

Inevitable teething troubles are being worked out, including a water system failure that left many without showers on Saturday.

Sleeping accommodation is spread across 11 residential blocks separated by orderly, tree-lined courtyards. Most athletes will share rooms in the apartments, which vary in size from one to five bedrooms. There's also a 13,000 square foot gym, a medical center and a dry cleaners.

But the most important facility is the cafeteria, which is housed in a temporary structure big enough to park 80 double-decker buses.

Alastair Jamieson for msnbc.com

Visitors play pool in The Globe - the "dry" bar in the Olympic Village.

Food is among the biggest concerns for organizers, who will need to serve as many as 60,000 meals a day. And these are no ordinary meals: Phelps alone consumes 12,000 calories a day. At the 2008 Beijing games he started each day with three fried egg sandwiches, a five-egg omelet, three slices of French toast with powdered sugar, three chocolate chip pancakes and two cups of coffee.

25,000 loaves of bread
By the end of the London Games, athletes will have tucked away an estimated total of 90 tons of seafood, 25,000 loaves of bread and 360 tons of fruit.

Serving stations are sorted by culinary tradition with Indian, Asian, Mediterranean and Afro-Caribbean dishes served at different counters along with a "Best of British" area with local favorites such as sausages, brown sauce and English mustard.

And yes, there's a McDonald's.

Sponsorship deals mean the only branded drinks available to athletes are those made by Coca-Cola, including Powerade and Abbey Well Water.

Halal and kosher meals are available - the kitchens expect a rush of demand at dusk after Ramadan begins on July 20 – and there’s a multi-faith prayer center manned by a team of 50 spiritual leaders from different religions.

Will it be enough to satisfy the most demanding competitors? Well, the food is tasty and nutritious.

"We've all lived in villages and had good experiences and bad experiences," British triple jump gold medalist and organizers' committee member Jonathan Edwards told Reuters. "It's a good night's sleep, the food that you want to eat, when you want to eat it and also the transport system." 

But one aspect that appears to be ready is security. Uppermost in the minds of planners might be the Munich massacre – the killing of 11 Israeli competitors and coaches at the 1972 Olympics by terrorists who climbed over fences into the athletes' compound.

Despite being adjacent the main Olympic Park, the village is separated by metal fences topped with razor wire and a raft of additional airport-style security checks that include thorough searches of the interior of all vehicles. Some 1,500 security workers will guard the complex around the clock. Similar levels of security protect the woodchip-fueled power plant that supplies the entire Games site.

Alastair Jamieson for msnbc.com

Aiming for bronze: Msnbc.com's Alastair Jamieson wakes up sleepy after a night in the Olympic Village.

Although intense planning has gone into how the village will operate during the games, not all of it is purpose-built for the Olympics: After the closing ceremony, the accommodation blocks will be retrospectively fitted with kitchens and converted into 2,818 new homes, 1,379 of which will be government-subsidized for individuals or families who could not otherwise afford to live there. 

'Not a five-star resort'
The Financial Times reported that the cost of the Village was initially met from the $15 billion public budget after planned private funding dried up in the credit crunch of 2009. However, about two-thirds of the cost was recouped when the housing was pre-sold to private buyers and government-sponsored housing associations.

It isn’t yet clear if the Olympic site will necessarily be a sought-after place to live once the Games are gone. One architecture writer described the accommodation blocks as "a tad forbidding, not indeed very villagey at all," and compared them to the "much-criticized estates of the 1960s."

However, former competitor Edwards remains optimistic about the site, and the village experience. "There's a feel of camaraderie, support," he told The Independent. "It's a great place to be. I know what it's like to turn up at an Olympics with all those hopes and fears. You have to have the platform right. It's not a five-star resort but for an Olympic Village this is outstanding."

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