Napoleon once said that armies march on their stomachs – and exactly the same is true of athletes. To countless millions, next month’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, from August 5 to 21, will be the planet’s greatest festival of sport. But as Professor David Russell, whose company was hired to oversee the creation and delivery of food at London 2012, points out, the Olympics is also “the world’s greatest food event”.
At Rio, there will be 10,500 athletes from more than 200 countries, some 7000 team officials and 8 million spectators. The restaurant at the athletes’ village expects to serve some 60,000 meals a day, getting through a daily total of 250 tonnes of food.
The eight key principles that underpin the Rio food and drink operation start with a commitment to safety. The 2500-strong catering team will work round the clock to ensure that everything consumed will be healthy, safe and uncontaminated by natural food poisons or illicit chemicals.
“Food purity is the number one priority,” Russell says. “How to look after the welfare of the athletes consumes hours and hours of our time.”
The next challenge is the complex matter of meeting the nutritional needs of every conceivable size and shape of competitor. “Each trains their body to be at peak performance. They all have their own nutritional needs and every individual’s diet is different during their event, before it or after it,” says Russell.
With a floor space of 24,700 m2, the athletes’ restaurant in Rio will be a grand affair, with ten serving islands separated by themes. As at the last Olympics, nutritionists will be on hand to give advice. “A lot of athletes know exactly what food they need,” says Russell. “But others, who are coming to major games for the first time, spend hours talking to those guys.”
The difference between competitors’ eating habits was perfectly illustrated at the Beijing Olympics of 2008, where US swimming superstar Michael Phelps, whose body did not appear to possess a single gram of excess weight, said that he consumed between 33,000 kilojoules (kJ) and 42,000 kJ a day.
He described sitting down to a typical breakfast of three sandwiches filled with fried eggs, cheese, fried onions, tomatoes and lettuce; a bowl of grits (thick maize porridge); three slices of French toast with powdered sugar and three chocolate-chip pancakes.
By contrast, US gymnast Nastia Liukin, who won the Beijing women’s all-round gold medal, had a daily intake of just 5000 kJ.
The 18-year-old Liukin revealed that she might have a breakfast of eggs, or yoghurt, or oatmeal, but certainly not all three. “Then for lunch I’ll have a salad with chicken or fish or some sort of protein and then for dinner I keep it really light with probably just a piece of fish and vegetables.”
So you have one gold medallist eating far more at a single breakfast sitting than another does in an entire day. Likewise a male marathon runner, who wants to combine maximum endurance with minimum weight, might eat around 13,000-15,000 kJ a day, while a triathlete, who needs upper body strength as well as endurance, gets through 25,000 kJ (women would consume roughly 75-80% as much as their male equivalents).
Now factor in the very different types of food habitually eaten by competitors from, say, Belgium and Brazil, or Jamaica and Japan. Add to that the personal principles, medical conditions or religious dietary laws that affect the food they are allowed, or allow, themselves to eat.
Flávia Albuquerque is the food and beverages manager at Rio 2016. She is well aware of the challenge she faces in meeting the different nutritional needs of the athletes. “The food will have information that explains how many kilojoules, how much protein, carbohydrate, fat and salt they have,” she says. The presence of gluten and lactose will also be flagged, with options free of these substances served for those with an intolerance.
Although Albuquerque points out that “we will not put chilli in foods, we will offer it separately”, an event of this nature is a chance for the host nation to showcase its own vibrant cuisine. “We’re going to offer a good variety of the best tastes of Brazil. We hope that the foreign athletes try these and enjoy them,” she says.
Alongside options such as Italian, Asian, ‘tastes of the world’, halal and kosher, there will be a traditional Brazilian churrasco (barbecue). The athletes should also get the chance to try the likes of pão de quijo (baked bread balls filled with cheese), brigadeiro (a classic Brazilian sweet) and the more obviously healthy açaí, the Amazonian fruit popular with athletes for its high-energy value.
Whatever the specific dishes on offer at Rio, they will not be there by chance. Olympics organisers talk to the federations that govern the various sports to discuss their specific needs. Competitors can come to the Games reassured that if quinoa or feta cheese is important to them, it will be there.
Mike Naylor, a top nutritionist who is advising the British Olympic squad, describes this as “performance-focused eating”. He explains: “Every meal and every piece of food has a purpose, whether it’s to improve recovery, or prepare the athlete for the next session, or just maintain general wellness and reduce the number of missed training sessions.”
Most competitors eat more when they train than when they compete. “You get the main fuel in days before the event, topping up the muscles’ stores of glycogen [a form of glucose that acts as the body’s energy reserve],” Naylor says. “Then on the competition day you eat to feel neither too hungry nor too full.”
Even so, he adds, “Food can have a direct competitive effect on the day of an event. Marathon runners, for example, can only store so much carbohydrate in their muscles, so they need top-ups during the race.”
For the nutritionists, the real work is done before the competitors even set foot inside the dining hall at the Olympic Village. The British Olympic squad will be based at a preparation camp in Belo Horizonte, 350 km from Rio.
Competitors will arrive there in mid-July and not be flown to Rio until three or four days before their event takes place. That way, their environment, their training and their diets can be controlled with absolute precision.
“We’re not policing or babysitting athletes,” Naylor insists, but he admits, “There are little ways we can play with the environment to give athletes a nudge and encourage them to eat the food they need.
“So, if you want someone to increase their vegetable intake, but decrease carbohydrates, you’d put the vegetables before the carbs and meat in the serving line so there’s less room on the plate for a lot of high-kilojoule food.”
Megan Pugh, who was a groom for the German showjumping team that won gold at Sydney 2000, before working on the equestrian events at Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, had a similar approach to the horses she cared for.
“There are so many tricks you play on them, just like with humans,” she says. For example, it’s very important that horses, like humans, drink enough water to keep properly hydrated during competition. “I shove heaven knows how many carrots into a bucket of water,” she says. “I know that the horse is so greedy that he’ll never take his mouth out of it. He’ll just drink as he’s playing with the carrots.
“In showjumping you’ve got an athlete on the top and an athlete on the bottom,” adds Pugh. “A top horse is a highly demanding animal with its own personality – just like the rider. So feeding is horse specific. You wouldn’t give the same diet to a big, old laid-back stallion as you would to a nervous, highly strung mare.”
Like its rider, a horse wants to eat the food it’s used to, in the way it’s used to. Teams therefore fly in their own supplies, under strict supervision by the International Olympic Committee, to ensure that all the feed is free of banned substances.
Top European teams such as Germany and France use ‘haylage’, a grass-based foodstuff that is nutritious and free from dust, which can affect the horses’ respiratory systems.
A typical showjumper’s day, Pugh says, involves 30 to 40 minutes training and a food intake of around 62,000 kJ. This rises to 67,000-80,000 kJ during competition, when the physical and mental stress can cause the horse to lose weight and strength unless it is given regular snacks of haylage to top up its energy.
For all the similarities between two- and four-legged Olympians, there is one big difference: horses don’t consider eating to be a social activity. But for the human athletes at Rio, the dining halls at the Olympic village and at other Games sites are the places where they mingle with other young people from all over the world.
Whatever the differences in achievement and ability, this communal eating space is a great leveller, with golden girls and also-rans standing side by side in the line for food, or sharing spaces at the same tables.
“It’s a unique environment,” says British hockey player Anne Panter. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a superstar, you’re just like any other athlete preparing for an event.”
There are, of course, some stars who are even more super than others. Usain Bolt will surely cause the same commotion at Rio as he did at the 2012 Games. Four years ago, Bolt’s first appearance in the dining hall, flanked by a Jamaican shot-putter and discus-thrower as bodyguards, brought the place to a standstill as he strolled to the rotisserie section, where Caribbean-style chicken was served.
Similar excitement hit the McDonald’s restaurant at the Beijing Olympics when Michael Phelps popped in for a bite. McDonald’s, one of the Games’ major sponsors, will provide 8-10% of the food athletes consume: a Big Mac has become the traditional treat the competitors allow themselves when competition is over and they can – for a while at least – eat whatever they like.
What Russell recalls most clearly from the last Olympics is the way that the mood of the dining hall changed during the day. “You can sense the level of tension prior to really big events,” he says. “When you walk into the canteen at breakfast, the room is quiet, suppressed. People are eating as individuals, isolated on their own, in their own space, taking time out to think and prepare. But by late afternoon, the place is filled by the sound of people’s voices.
“There’ll be big tables of 20 people, real multicultural groups, where all the athletes who’ve been competing against each other are telling their stories of the day, tweeting and taking selfies. You can see lifelong friendships being formed. I just thought, This feels like a church in the morning and a party in the afternoon.”
And that atmosphere of fun and celebration is exactly what he foresees for Rio. The beach volleyball, for instance, will be held at Copacabana, where agua de coco (coconut water) will be served in fresh coconuts.
“We planned London like a military operation. We were trying to achieve perfection,” says Russell. “At Rio they will create something very different. It will be a relaxed environment, more like a party.
“And if there’s one thing Rio knows, it’s how to hold a great party.”