- 7 Aug 08, 12:52 PM
There are stars at these Olympics, and then there are stars.
As a mere mortal, you tend to assume that the elite athletes here in Beijing inhabit a strange egalitarian society of super-humans, all unfazed by each others' sporting achievements, all likely to attract roughly the same amount of attention from the world's media.
Roger Federer's regal arrival on Olympic Green on Thursday rather blew that theory out of the water.
The only way they could have squeezed more journalists into his press conference would have been to stack people on top of each other like school chairs.
There were people sitting in the aisles. There were people hanging off the walls. There were people forced to wait outside with ears pressed to the wall like nosey neighbours.
At Usain Bolt's big media bun-fight the other day, I counted 17 TV crews. Roger attracted closer to 50.
So desperate were reporters to hear what the great man had to say that they yelled over the top of each other like City traders during a stockmarket meltdown.
"Roger!" would bellow four voices from different points of the room, before four simultaneous questions were shouted out at exactly the same time.
The most intriguing answer Federer had to give was about his decision to check into a five-star hotel for the duration out here, rather than stay in the athletes' village with the rest of the Swiss team.
It's not a question of luxury. Rafael Nadal's in the village, as is Andy Murray and every other tennis player here. According to Roger, it's simply a matter of getting badgered too much by his fellow elite athletes.
"It's not possible for me to stay there," he said. "There are so many athletes who want their pictures taken with me.
"I don't mind it, but every day? I can't escape it. It's not the ideal preparation for winning Olympic gold."
Some critics take that to mean that Federer is failing to embrace the true spirit of the Olympics. The famous bit about the world's youth coming together every four years doesn't work quite so well if half of them refuse to stay anywhere near the others.
For the anti-Fed brigade, his decision carries unfortunate echoes of point guard John Stockton's line when the 1992 US Dream Team refused to stay in the athletes' village in Barcelona.
"We don't intend to make a whole lot of friends here," said Stockton at the time, famously. "The Olympic spirit is beating people, not living with them."
Federer protests that the Olympics - despite his 12 Grand Slam titles, the millions in his bank account, the imminent loss of his world no.1 ranking to Nadal - really do matter to him.
First up, he's desperate to make up for the shock second round defeat he suffered to Tomas Berdych four years ago. Secondly, he points out that the Olympics have always played a significant part in his life.
He remembers as a child watching on television as Carl Lewis won medal after medal, and Marc Rosset taking tennis gold for Switzerland in 1992.
Eight years ago in Sydney he first met Mirka, the woman who's been his girlfriend ever since. In Athens, he carried the Swiss flag at the opening ceremony - a moment he describes as, "one of the greatest moments in my career".
"It's one of my dreams to do well at an Olympic Games," he insists. "To win gold would mean as much as a Wimbledon victory - it would be right up there with my Grand Slam wins.
"Carrying the flag was one of those things you can only dream about. Walking into the stadium and seeing all the Swiss flags, the athletes on one side and the fans on the other in a stadium as big as I've ever been in, was unforgettable."
It's hard not to feel a little sympathy for Federer.
This year's version of the Dream Team - or the Redeem Team, as they've been dubbed after their predecessors' appalling showing last time out - are hiding away in the InterContinental Hotel on Financial Street, miles from the buzz and banter of Olympic Green.
Yet they've received nothing but praise - on the basis that in Athens they refused to even stay in the city, preferring to house themselves on a £550m luxury liner instead.
It doesn't help Federer's cause when Nadal, who was mobbed at Beijing airport when he arrived on Tuesday, is positively effusive about staying in the Olympic village.
"It's unforgettable to be in there with all the elite athletes that we only otherwise see on television," he says. "To be with them there is a really marvellous feeling."
Thanks Rafa, Roger must be thinking. First the French Open, then Wimbledon, then the no.1 spot, and now this...
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