As other Olympic host cities have discovered, plenty can go wrong when you’re providing half a million meals to athletes and Olympic-village workers over a 60-day period. In Torino four years ago, the athletes’ village ran out of bananas, a competition staple for many athletes. In Beijing, athletes waited up to half an hour for their morning coffee. Some teams had trouble finding out what was in the food.
For the past three years, Vancouver-based sports nutritionist and registered dietitian Nanci Guest has been researching stories like these in her role as a nutrition consultant for Vanoc. She’s been advising French caterer Sodexo, which has a contract to provide a marketplace of made-to-order, fresh-food stations at the athletes’ villages in both Vancouver and Whistler; the food building in each village will also include a McDonald’s restaurant and a McCafé. (Food from both McDonald’s and Sodexo is free to athletes and Olympic workers.)
“An athlete has trained their whole lives, and this could be their one chance,” Guest told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “So we’re going to try to be the first Olympics that doesn’t have any complaints.”
One thing that’s out of her control is McDonald’s presence. McDonald’s has been involved in the Olympics since 1968, and it has been a “worldwide partner” since 1996.
Guest said she has “mixed feelings” about McDonald’s feeding elite athletes in the villages. She normally advocates a diet heavy in fruits and vegetables for athletes of all levels, and said a common Canadian dietary flaw is an excess of sodium, for which fast food is notorious.
“Intuitively, we don’t think of those [McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, another worldwide sponsor] as being for a performance body. But when you’re training hard and you’re consuming 3, 4, 5,000 calories a day, if you have a Coke, it’s not going to break you. If you have an Egg McMuffin, it’s not going to break you.”¦It’s not something I would recommend on a daily basis.”
Toronto author Helen Lenskyj thinks the image of fit athletes gobbling sesame-seed buns smacks of hypocrisy.
“There’s the blatant contradiction,” Lenskyj told the Straight by phone from Toronto. She’s not surprised, however. The modern Olympics, she said, isn’t about sport or a healthy lifestyle. It’s about business.
Indeed, no McDonald’s could mean no Games, according to Nejat Sarp, Vanoc’s vice president of villages. He explained to the Straight why the world’s elite Olympic and Paralympic athletes will be sipping cappuccinos from McCafés before going for gold.
The Olympic movement needs the financial support and promotion. Plus, the athletes like the food.
“Even if you were to watch [swimmer] Michael Phelps, when he won his eighth gold medal and the question was asked when he got out of the pool, ”˜What are you doing now?’ he said, ”˜I’m going to go have a Big Mac,’ ” Sarp said in a telephone interview.
“We have to understand the fact that there is a real need and a real demand from the athletes [for McDonald’s],” Sarp said, “and, most importantly, a company like McDonald’s, their dedication and commitment has allowed the Games to continue to go on. Otherwise, in the global financial world we live in, this wouldn’t be possible.”
For the Torino and Beijing games, the International Olympic Committee’s 12 global partners, of which McDonald’s was one, contributed US$866 million, according to the 2009 Olympic Marketing Fact File.
McDonald’s is planning to serve items from its regular Canadian menu at the Olympic villages, including cheeseburgers, fries, McNuggets, and entrée salads, according to McDonald’s senior manager of global communications, Suzanne Valliere. The only nod to the other countries participating in the Games, she said, is a special Sichuan sauce for McNuggets.
Given North America’s obesity and heart-disease epidemics, is the McMenu really something elite athletes should be eating—and plugging?
“I think it would be good for people to look at the bigger picture in terms of the choice and variety we offer on the menu,” Valliere told the Straight in a phone interview from Oak Brook, Illinois, pointing out the entrée salad options.
The Mediterranean salad with chicken and balsamic dressing contains 64 percent of the recommended daily intake of sodium and 37 percent of the recommended daily intake of fat, according to the calculator on McDonald’s Canada’s Web site.
What else will the athletes be eating? All other food will be prepared by Sodexo, best known in B.C. for providing hospital food. Vanoc’s Sarp said that local caterers didn’t come forward to bid for the contract when they found out how many people would be served in the village each day. Ditto Vancouver’s culinary schools, which Vanoc had been hoping to include.
Local produce, Sarp noted, is limited in February and March, so it won’t be a major feature in the athletes’ villages. Neither will Sodexo be charged with accommodating the tastes of each international team, though a variety of rices will be served at each meal.
According to Vanoc, one highlight of Sodexo’s offerings will be the First Nations booth. The menu there includes whole-wheat bannock, venison chili, bison meat loaf, and grilled Pacific salmon. Sodexo will also serve Albertan steaks and roasts, B.C. turkey sausage, and, of course, real maple syrup.