By Liana B. Baker
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - As the athletes strived for gold, the world's biggest companies engaged in their own sport during the Rio Olympics - outglamming each other with spectacular hospitality houses.
The opulent houses, with lavish pools, flowing bars and world-class chefs, are not new to Olympics hospitality. In Rio, however, they rose in prominence with a lack of high-class catering and facilities at the sporting venues.
Nike has two houses, one near Copacabana beach and another on a golf course. Under Armour has a penthouse in Copacabana with a pool, while Adidas is in an upscale local mall.
Nissan took over an entire hotel, renamed it "Nissan Kicks Hotel" and hosted rooftop parties until dawn.
Companies can spend years gutting and renovating buildings to create an "Olympic dream house," aiming to appeal to as many high-profile athletes and celebrities as possible so that corporate guests can mix among them.
"Hopping between houses is the 29th sport of the Games," says Thierry Borra, director of Olympic Games Management at Coca-Cola. There were, of course, 28 sports at Rio.
Take a typical night at the Omega house, set up in a stylish neighbourhood across the street from Ipanema beach: the Olympics' official timekeeper threw a golf-themed party, covering the floors in green astroturf to look like a course.
Spanish golfer Sergio Garcia showed up, and the bar served Arnold Palmer inspired sweet-tea vodkas. The mom of a U.S. swimmer dropped by in flip-flops to check out the scene, while Brazilian socialites milled around.
"WAY TOO MUCH"
But at least one executive has begun to question the millions of dollars that companies spend on Olympic hospitality, especially when many Olympians struggle to make ends meet or when sports are overwhelmed with doping controversies.
"I think it's clutter. I think it's overdone," said Gene McCarthy, chief executive of Asics Americas, a unit of Japanese footwear company Asics Corp. "It's way too much."
McCarthy would like to see more corporate Olympic dollars invested in motivating people to get involved in sports.
"I personally believe we should be spending our money on participation," he said, explaining that Asics had a house in Rio because all the major brands did.
"Asics Hub" has a pool and sits in a wooded area that usually hosts weddings. Its guests included the U.S. women's field hockey team and sprinter and long jumper Jarrion Lawson.
With Tokyo hosting the Games in 2020, it seems unlikely the Japan-based firm will give up on a corporate house altogether.
No sponsor revealed to Reuters how much they had spent on their houses, but some pointed out that they would leave the spaces to the community once they left Rio.
Cisco, a sponsor of the Rio organizing committee, renovated the Brazilian military's officers club in return for using it during the Olympics. The club now has a new balcony overlooking the ocean and Rio's famous Sugarloaf mountain.
Omega did a 14-month renovation of the Laura Alvim Cultural Center, which was built in the early 1900s. When Omega leaves, the arts community will take back the refurbished digs.
"The greatest legacy is the renovation of the house's theatre that can now be used to stage theatre plays," said an Omega representative. "Already, Rio's artistic community are eagerly booking the space for their work."
(Reporting by Liana B. Baker in Rio de Janeiro)