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Big world, small town


SYDNEY, Australia -- Today's cinema schedule lists an 11 a.m. showing of "Alien," with subtitles in Hungarian. On one of the pool tables, a man from Moldavia is teaching a girl from Bangladesh how to break. A large Cuban flag hangs from a balcony near the main entrance.

Complete with a view of the flame atop the 110,000-seat Olympic Stadium, the Olympic Village is where approximately 15,000 athletes and coaches from around the world have gotten their mail this month. The 24-hour dining hall can seat nearly 5,000. Nearly anything you can get at a mall, you can get at the Olympic Village, which has a hair salon, a general store and a florist.

Curiously, T-shirt and souvenir prices aren't any better in the village than they are at the Superstore in Olympic Park, where there was a two-hour wait Friday.

Olympic romancing is legendary, and there are reports that organizers will distribute 100,000 condoms to athletes during the Games.

The American swim team warmed up for the Olympics by spending two weeks at a plush Pasadena, Calif., hotel. It only seems like every other athlete here competed for a college in the United States, and the Americans can sound blasM-i about the surroundings. Some men and women from developing or impoverished nations may never want to leave the Olympic Village and go home.

Yuliana Mikheeva of the Armenian women's swim team finished 63rd in a field of 74 in the 50-meter freestyle Friday. The voluminous computer network at the media workrooms here will spit out a three-page biography of Jenny Thompson.

After the standard height, weight and date of birth, the details of Mikheeva's career and life story come down to this single entry: she lists her hobby as sleeping.

A 22-year-old who got a college degree earlier this year, Mikheeva said that she'll go back to her homeland and get a job after the Olympics, her first international competition. Until then, she'll do what she does most nights here: hit the Dance Club.

What does Mikheeva think of the Olympic Village?

"It's great," she said.

What does she like best?

"Everything," she said. "I eat a lot of fruit, because I have to compete. After I compete, I'll eat everything. Every day we're here, we go dancing in the evening. Sometimes we go to Sydney, when the coach says we can go."

The U.S. compound at the Olympic Village maintains its own bank of computers. For those who aren't backed by a wealthy organizing committee, there is the IBM "SurfShack," where there is a 45-minute limit and a lengthy line to get on one of the 70 terminals. Each athlete here is invited to create his or her own Web page to receive electronic mail.

As of Thursday, there were 2,745 official Olympic athlete Web pages. Cuba led the way with 160. The top seven athletes on the fan e-mail hit list were Ian Thorpe and six Australians, followed by American gymnast Amy Chow.

The people who pass by range from tiny tumblers to 7-foot basketball players and super-heavyweight wrestlers. You hear conversations in dozens of tongues, and some gossip still makes the rounds the old-fashioned way, by word of mouth.

A group in stylish African print shirts is from the Ivory Coast. Mary Grahore, a sprinter who lives and trains in France, drops her jaw when she hears that Marie-Jose Perec has fled Australia.

At 5 p.m., a four-piece rock band blared, "Do You Believe in Magic?" in the amphitheater that fronts the International Zone.

The housekeeping staff figures that it will make up rooms 350,000 times during the Games. It didn't plan on dealing with pinpricks from discarded syringes used for vitamin supplements at the least and banned substances at the worst, and needle bins were hastily brought in.

The work won't end when the Olympic flame is extinguished Oct. 1, either. After some modifications, the Paralympic Games will take over Homebush Bay. There will be a repair center for wheelchairs, prosthetics and orthotics.

Whether you are on the Zone diet or still loading carbohydrates, the Olympic Village is always a reliable place to get a meal. The catering staff alone numbers about 2,000, including 450 chefs and cooks who have to come up with a variety of dishes to please visitors from 200 nations.

The villagers will go through a half-million apples, 3 million soft drinks and 110,000 kilograms (242,506 pounds) of beef.

The menu might not thrill, but the people-watching does. James Carter, a 1996 graduate of Mervo High who makes his international meet debut at the Olympic Stadium tonight, didn't talk about the food or the entertainment, but turning a corner and finding fellow American hurdler Gail Devers or Wilson Kipketer, Denmark's world-record holder in the 800 meters.

Keita Cline is here to run the 200 meters for the British Virgin Islands. A 25-year-old who went to the University of Minnesota, he likes the Olympics better the second time around.

"The living facilities were a lot more dorm-like in Atlanta," Cline said. "This is more like home. I don't hear many complaints about the food. The venues are close by. You don't have to wait for buses.

"If there's one thing they could improve on, it would be more entertainment. We have to go outside too much for that now."

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