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Greatest Olympic feat of all: feeding athletes

August 5, 2012
By ANITA?HANABURGH , The Leader Herald

I love the Olympics. I've got my NBC schedule pinned to the fridge. More than 10,000 Olympians have descended upon London.

Now, I ask you, have any of you thought, "How in the world will they feed those athletes, their coaches, the support personnel, the press, the media, the volunteers and all the parents?"

Oh busboy, is it a food service dream or is it a nightmare? I'm not talking about the 700,000 foreign tourists that are expected or the million English spectators. I'm talking about feeding those basic bodies that turn these 300 events in 26 sports into the Olympic Games. That's 14 million meals!

One gets so caught up in the competitive feats that we forget about the foods that are the real fuel needed for these games. Forget? I didn't. I remember 1980.

When I sat down to write this article, I thought I would tell you about my experience feeding athletes during the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, where I was the executive assistant to the project manager of the food services.

I can give you some insight into feeding athletes from more than 50 countries, but I am not able to tell you how London is going to feed this monumental number. It was tough enough in Lake Placid.

London makes Lake Placid look like peanuts. We fed 2,000 athletes and Olympic personnel in the Olympic village, now a state prison in the woods of Ray Brook, in Essex County. The London villages will house and feed 16,000 or more athletes continuously all day, rotating approximately 100,000 athletes and support personnel throughout the two weeks. How will they do it?

How did we do it? Each country has its own unique customs, cuisines and religions, and each athlete has his or her own sport, physical requirements and training needs.

I was the first one hired and the last one fired from ARA Services. I remember that first day entering the Will Rogers building in Saranac Lake. My boss, John, an import from ARA headquarters in Philadelphia, had given me orders: "Do whatever you need to do."

The first thing I did was to order phones.

The next thing I did was call the Montreal Olympic offices: "Send me your menus and recipes. Courier service? This afternoon? Great!"

There was no FedEx then, no text, no speedy internet, no iPhones.

We fed people in seven basic areas (compared to London's 120), including the Press Center (Lake Placid High School); the Broadcast center; the Production Center, which prepared box lunches for athletes and support personnel; Camps Adirondack which housed international and national volunteers; and all the VIP lounges at all the sports venues. But it was the Olympic Village that required the most care in menu planning.

We had to accommodate our elite guests' diverse needs and diverse tastes, eating customs, ethnic choices and nutritional and training requirements. We borrowed ideas from past Olympics, surveyed the sports teams, talked to nutritionists, doctors and trainers.

We called Alaska to get fresh Salmon every day. We ordered Buffalo from Wyoming. We practiced making sushi. (Then a real novelty in Saranac Lake!) We interviewed vendors to find the best price, to find the most diversity and to find the ones that could deliver during the delivery window from midnight to 3 a.m.

The Olympic Village had two dining rooms seating 700, with six lines of continuous service 24/7.

Five entrees were offered on a five-day menu cycle at all the meal opportunities - breakfast, lunch, dinner and the all-night buffet.

For example, the athlete could select from the following: five different and rotating choices of juice; a plethora of fresh fruit from all over the world; nine different cold cereals; two hot cereals changing daily; homemade soups; three styles of eggs; pancakes or waffles; bacon, sausage or ham steak; strip steak; a daily fish selection; changing choices of potato, pasta and rice; and a large selection of baked goods such as muffins, French pastries and corn bread.

Five entrees that rotated were offered in addition - mushroom quiche, pickled herring and potatoes, sausage and gnocchi, fish cakes and rice or steak and scrambled eggs to name just a few. (And that was only breakfast!)

Any athlete could request any food prepared especially just for them. We also served an extensive menu of snacks at the Olympic Disco in the village. (Yes, disco - this was the eighties!)

I really don't know how London is doing it. But they will do it with two huge differences. It will be on a massive scale, and it will be sustainable.

In 1980, was "sustainable" even in the dictionary? The London bid actually promised "to support consumption of local, seasonal and organic produce ..."

The London 2012 Olympic Games is the first games to serve food that is mainly fresh, local, seasonal and organic, with a large proportion from plants and a low proportion from animal sources and with a zero-waste plan. Vendors and caterers at the events, including McDonald's, must follow a similar philosophy.

London also will deal with other issues of little thought in Lake Placid. All food fed to athletes will arrive in tamper-proof containers from selected suppliers approved vendors. Anti-doping testing will randomly occur on a daily basis. Each dining and food prep area will be protected by a security guard.

I have only touched upon a few thoughts about feeding athletes during these summer games. My wish is to give you pause when you are cheering for Team USA to stop for a minute and wonder what the athletes ate today.

The food service director in London is having a greater challenge than any of the athletes.

Comments? Send email to Anita at



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