At about midnight on Feb. 15, Michal Handzus sat on the floor of the special guest loft at the Last Lap club with a bottle of Budweiser in his hand. He had a look on his face which was neither bored nor excited.
Truth is, like a lot of athletes hanging out that night on Last Lap’s indoor balcony, Handzus, a forward for the Slovakian hockey team, was probably just really tired. A teammate sat next to him on the floor, his legs stretched out and with the same gaze. The night before, the Slovakians had symbolically beaten the French national squad seven to one. Symbolically, because despite the convincing win, it was Slovakia’s final game in Salt Lake City during the Olympics. And the next day Handzus had to catch a plane to Arizona where he plays forward for the Phoenix Coyotes, a National Hockey League team.
The Last Lap played host to one of its biggest gatherings of athletes that night. Unlike the start of the Games, many of the competitors had finished their official duties in Salt Lake City. It was the first time they could actually relax. The club provided them with free entry into the select athlete’s loft. From their perch, the Olympians could look down at all of the paying customers below whom the club had attracted with promises to “party with the athletes.”
Handzus said he liked the place. “It’s nice to come and relax. I just wish there was a room or something where I could get away from all the cigarette smoke.” Maybe that’s why he was on the floor—hoping the smoke would rise above giving him a chance to keep his lungs clean.
But the smoke really wasn’t that bad. A Canadian athlete who didn’t want City Weekly to publish his name brushed off the Slovakians’ complaints as typical paranoia. “They’re hockey players. This place is great. It’s nice to have a room like this to get away from all of the attention—all of the media. Salt Lake’s a nice town.”
For the Last Lap’s managers to set aside a loft—a room literally raised above everyone else—to keep their most-valued guests entertained is more than appropriate. In fact, some might consider it downright un-Olympic to do it any other way. What would any event related to the Olympics be without an ever-present and strictly enforced delegation of status?
At the Opening Ceremonies, high above even the people who spent hundreds of dollars just to be there, sat the Olympic elite. The mayor, the president and others, who in theory were mere representatives of many of the people below, enjoyed the spectacle in a lighted booth that served to the thousands in the audience as a reminder of who were the stadium’s most important Olympic guests. At each venue—even the free Medals Plaza—a couple of rows of heated sky boxes give the VIP’s their due comfort.
And then there are the athletes. From the moment they parade into the Opening Ceremonies, the popularity and ritual of the Games unmistakably infuses them with a mighty dose of institutionalized charisma. It is status. And it is a valuable commodity. Leave it to an intelligent businessman to figure out a way to effectively distribute said charisma, and voila: the Last Lap.
“Party with the athletes” isn’t just a quick description of the place—it’s an advertisement to share the athletes’ lofty status. Share their charisma. And when it comes right down to it, the owners aren’t lying. The club does give spectators the chance to get down with those wild athletes—even if the Olympians are just sitting on the floor drinking a beer. Sometimes they go downstairs to the bathroom.
With the athletes kept mostly at a reasonable distance from the commoners, the club’s managers have to provide a quality time to those who pay up to $60 to get in. And they do. Drag queens roam around the joint while people play video games. Others get down in one of the two huge dance floors with techno, hip-hop or slower tunes.
But it’s obviously the chance to hang with the athletes that attracts most people to the Last Lap. The athletes have reason to come, too, even aside from their free admission. Apparently, the nightclub that organizers set up for the competitors at the Athletes’ Village hasn’t exactly become the greatest of gigs.
Sources inside the Village, who decided to keep their cover for fear of any impending wrath from the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, told City Weekly the nightclub has kind of bit the dust. Organizers have brought in well-known DJs to spin tunes for the athletes, but no one seems to care. The best attendance came with a performance from a group of drag queens. On the walls, organizers have put up a fine selection of what sources call “fake art.”
It stands to reason that the nightclub wouldn’t do so well. If athletes are in the mood to go out dancing, they probably are in the mood to leave the Athletes’ Village, too. But where the nightclub fails, the coffee shop takes over. Sources say the Village’s coffee shop—off-limits to almost everybody except the athletes—has become the nexus of entertainment for the 1,500 or so competitors staying there. On any given night, the Swedish snowboarders, Italian speed skaters or whoever else will take turns singing or playing the piano for their fellow Olympians.
Sources say watching the Swedish women play their guitars and sing is quite a treat. “It wasn’t Sheryl Crow or anything, but it was entertaining because you could tell they were having fun.”
And fun is the name of the game. The coffee shop’s manager keeps that in mind, too. Organizers turned an old army fort into the Athletes’ Village. Each of their rooms were transformed into modern dormitories for the university students who will move back in when the Olympics are over. The Village managers transformed an old officer’s house into the coffee shop. Upstairs they put Luv Sacs—those ever popular bean-bag-like chairs—into each room. Sources tell City Weekly that invariably, each night the doors to the rooms upstairs close when a pair walks in to “talk.” When that happens, the manager of the place, as a courtesy, obediently hangs a “do not disturb” sign on the door. Occasion to use up one of those condoms SLOC handed out at the beginning, maybe? City Weekly’s sources said the athletes didn’t receive just a few condoms—organizers gave them each dozens. Hey, it’s a friendly place.
But whatever activities commence behind the “do not disturb” signs can only be a minor part of Village life. Some much more mundane pleasure-seeking has also taken hold. Sources say the pin-trading obsession that infected Salt Lake City has taken over the village as well. “It’s amazing. Ben Taylor was playing a show the other day and hardly anybody was watching, so some of the volunteers crowded around him as if to save his ego. At the same time, a mob of athletes had gathered close by to trade pins. It really is the currency of the Village. Without a doubt, some people base their opinion of others here by the amount and quality of pins they have. If you have a lot of great pins, you’re sure to meet a lot of people,” one source said.
There clearly is a divide between the athletes, who are worried about their competitions, and the others who are giddy just to be at the Olympics, one source said. “More often than not, you get the feeling that they are just trying to do their personal best. Maybe set a record for their country. For however weird the whole Olympic thing is, when you interact with the athletes, you see that they don’t care who sponsors them. They don’t care who watches them, they just want to compete and do their best. Interacting with them is the only thing keeping me sane through all of this.”
Interacting with them is a choice deal. Outside of the Last Lap, Austrian luger Ranier Margreiter was trying to find the entrance. A group of girls let out a simultaneous scream when they heard that Margreiter and his teammate were “real” athletes. They took pictures and kissed the Austrians on the cheek. “This place is fun,” the luger said. “It has been a great Games. I’m done with my competition. All I want now is a place to relax. The only place we’ve been to at night is the Austrian House. We need something new.”
Conveniently, the business-savvy owners of the Last Lap had just the place for him—and the girls.