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David Owen: Proust, VIP Ice-Cream and a Recipe for Better Olympic Food

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Athletes show off their large order from McDonald's at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Photo: Twitter

So it looks like we can add another imperfection to the long list of blemishes at Rio’s perfectly imperfect Games (have I got that right?): the food.

Spectator food and drink provision at Rio 2016 “failed to meet World Health Organization (WHO) standards, the Brazilian Government’s dietary advice, as well as the Organizing Committee’s own aims,” according to something called the Phansmer Research Group, a body with links to Britain’s uber-sporty Loughborough University.

The group’s research, which included spectator interviews, found – according to a recently-circulated press release – that “ultra-processed food and drink dominated the menus.”

Since Brazil is a country where, as author and journalist John Gunther once wrote, “almost every known crop will grow,” this seems a bit of a shame, to put it mildly.

I have often wondered why event organizers do not pay more heed to the nature of the food made available for their customers to eat.

Ask Marcel Proust: a distinctive taste can act as a powerful stimulus for the memory.

In the 25 years since I attended my one and only Green Party conference (as a political journalist) in Wolverhampton, every last vestige of the debates has slipped my mind; but the cornucopia of organic goodies on offer at lunchtime has remained vividly with me.

A journalist colleague I remember sitting in glum contemplation of yet another leaden cheese pie at the Athens Olympics in 2004 was evidently experiencing his own flashback.

“In Moscow [at the 1980 Games] they gave us caviar vol-au-vents,” he sighed wistfully.

Your catering can emit a simple message about the values you stand for that I would have thought those who put on sports events attended by impressionable young people would be especially receptive to.

A stand selling beer in the Olympic Park. Some lines to enter venues and buy food have had up to 90-minute wait times. Photo: James Hill for The New York Times
A stand selling beer in the Olympic Park. Some lines to enter venues and buy food have had up to 90-minute wait times. Photo: James Hill for The New York Times

Forest Green Rovers, an ambitious non-league football club in southern England, offers only vegan food at home matches, in line with its goal of creating a truly sustainable club.

I suppose organizers of the biggest sporting events might feel they have too much else on their, er, plates to worry about micro-managing food offerings.

Better, they might reason, to set out a detailed specification of the service they require and then let the experts compete for the business and get on with it.

Many, including Olympic organizers, will also have sponsorship considerations to take into account.

Food and drink manufacturers are among the companies which have helped sport to prosper over recent decades by pumping in money in return for promotional opportunities that can augment sales.

You can hardly blame them for not wanting direct rivals to benefit from events they have paid heavily to sponsor.

A helpful Rio 2016 publication, entitled Taste of the Games, spelled out some of the repercussions for the vast associated catering operation of having four food and drink-related marketing partners sponsoring the event: Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Sadia and Skol.

This is what Taste of the Games had to say on the subject:

“The catering services proponent will be required to use best efforts to integrate as many of the Marketing Partner products into its menus as possible.

“One of the benefits these organizations receive when they become a Rio 2016 sponsor is exclusive marketing and supply rights within their product category.

“What this means to caterers is that if menus include products from a sponsor product category, the products of that sponsor must be used unless Rio 2016 approves otherwise in writing.

“This does not mean that all food and beverage products must [be] sourced from these organizations alone.

“However, it does mean that all food and beverage products that are not included in these categories must be unbranded.”

Such stipulations are less restrictive than might perhaps be imagined.

Coca-Cola has a vast array of products – from Minute Maid fruit juice to Ciel and Dasani water – over and above Coke itself.

I am sure I remember seeing Innocent Smoothies – whose maker is 90 per cent-plus owned by Coca-Cola – on sale in the London 2012 Olympic Park.

McDonald’s menus extend far beyond burgers.

There was a time, indeed, when they had a stake in the sandwich-shop chain Pret a Manger, not that I recall seeing Pret outlets onsite at an Olympic Games.

To be fair to Rio, no Olympic Games in my experience has got food absolutely right, although for fairly obvious reasons, this experience relates mainly to media catering, rather than that laid on for spectators.

One rule of thumb would be that the further the-venue is from the Games epicenter, the narrower and more uninspiring the food offering is likely to be.

In Rio, some media centers appeared to have no food availability whatsoever, at least that I could discern.

At one venue, indeed, I was reduced to begging a media relations supremo to fetch me an ice-cream from the VIP zone, violating lord knows how many sacred Olympic Charter tenets in the process.

Actually, the main issue with Olympic food in these outlying arenas tends in my view to be as much lack of variety, and sometimes high price for a captive audience, as low quality or nutrition.

With Tokyo 2020 events set to be spread far and wide thanks to concerted efforts to hold venue costs down, it would be nice to think that a certain amount of attention is being given to what I would characterize as a perennial problem.

My digestive tract is not getting any hardier in old age, so I would like to see individual venues allowed to select their own food purveyors, perhaps from a centrally-approved list.

A decent variety of food types should be available in adequate quantities and at fair prices to general spectators at all venues.

There is a strong case for a couple of the chosen suppliers at each venue to be small, local businesses, using regionally-sourced ingredients and based no more than 10 kilometers away.

By David Owen

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz

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