While saying goodbye at Prague airport in 1966, the great Czechoslovak runner, Emil Zátopek, slipped a packet to the Australian Ron Clarke. Clarke had just been visiting Zátopek behind the Iron Curtain, and the Czech had been a wonderful host, Clarke later recalled.

He and Zátopek were friends even though the Czech had had a renowned career and Clarke a strangely disappointing one: the Australian had set many world records, yet had only ever won one Olympic medal, a bronze.

As they said goodbye, presumably forever, Zátopek whispered that Clarke shouldn’t open the packet until he’d left Czech air space. He added: “Not out of friendship but because you deserve it.” Clarke recalled: “I wondered whether I was smuggling something out for him. I retired to the privacy of the lavatory. When I unwrapped the box, there, inscribed with my name and that day’s date, was Emil’s Olympic 10,000-metre gold medal. I sat on that toilet seat and wept.”

This Olympic fortnight we will hear horrible things about genetic doping, Tibet, and the colour of snot in polluted Beijing. Serious sport, said George Orwell, is “war minus the shooting”. Yet what saves the Games is that many athletes don’t experience them that way. For them, the Olympics really is the festival of international fraternisation it’s cracked up to be, helped along by that greatest lubricant of international relations, sex.

Most of this fraternisation happens in the Olympic Village. The first one was built for the Los Angeles Games of 1932 but housed only male athletes. For decades, “security” in the village meant trying to stop the male and female competitors from fraternising too much. Even in 1948 in London, the women had chaperones, writes Janie Hampton in her wonderful new book, Austerity Olympics.

The communist countries feared all-male fraternisation too. When the USSR first entered the Games, in Helsinki in 1952, its officials put up a chicken wire fence round the Soviet section of the athletes’ village. Things didn’t ease up much during the cold war. In Montreal in 1976, wrote the sportswriter Red Smith, a US swimmer invited his East German rival out to dinner after their event. The East German checked with his team officials, came back to the American, and said, sadly: “They won’t let me go.”

But even the cold war couldn’t thwart the American hammer thrower, Harold Connolly, and the Czech discus thrower, Olga Fikotová. They met at the 1956 Games, both won golds, fell in love, married (and eventually divorced). Language barriers meant nothing to them. “Husband,” Fikotová would explain, “Hammer . . . Boing!”

No wonder the athletes bond. Many have dedicated their lives to a passion that hardly anyone they know cares about. Suddenly, in the Olympic Village, they meet people from all over the earth who have been doing exactly the same thing. Then they share the supreme moment of their lives together.

That’s why the black Ethiopian, Derartu Tulu, and the white South African, Elana Meyer, ran a victory lap hand in hand after finishing first and second in the women’s 10,000m at the 1992 Olympics. It’s why, when the black American, Jesse Owens, was struggling early in the long jump at Hitler’s Olympics in Berlin in 1936, his German rival, “Lutz” Long, helped him with his technique. After Owens won gold, he and Long walked to the changing room arm in arm, writes John White in Olympic Miscellany.

These bonds sometimes last a lifetime. After the 200m sprint at the 1968 Olympics, the American runners, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gave the Black Power salute from the medals podium. They got thrown out of the Games but the third runner on the podium, Australian Peter Norman, supported their gesture. At Norman’s funeral in Australia 38 years later, Smith and Carlos were pallbearers.

Often the best bonding happens when athletes are done with their events. For years, they have lived like monks to prepare. Now their mission is complete. Their stress dissipates. And everyone in the Olympic village – save the odd female hammer thrower – looks gorgeous.

“You’ve got these people in their 20s with perfect bodies,” Graham Richardson, mayor of the Sydney athletes’ village in 2000, recounted afterwards on Australian radio. “You almost get sick of the sight of them. You sort of say, ‘I wish I could see an ordinary person’.”

Moreover, all these bodies are in the best shape they’ll ever be in but, because their owners have only just stopped training, they are bursting with unspent energy.

The result: spectacular condom use. In Sydney, each athlete was given 51 condoms. However, supplies ran out, and another 20,000 rubbers had to be shipped in. Even these got used up before the Games ended. “Seeing these girls scrummaging in the condom bowl for the right colours and sizes is quite a sight,” Richardson confided. Some were hoarding condoms to bring home to countries where they were scarce, but others used them on the spot.

The other day, the London Review of Books dismissed the Olympics as “orgies of lachrymose nationalism”. Orgies, yes; lachrymose nationalism, perhaps not.

Simonkuper-ft@hotmail.com

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