Behind the Olympics: Food

When I think of the Olympics, my mind usually goes to the athletes: the high level of commitment, the location…but I haven’t ever given much thought about how the athletes are fed.  A recent article in the New York Times caught my eye that made me see this world-wide event from a different angle.  Enough so that I felt compelled to depart from my usual food/art/science blog post themes to write about it.

Eight years ago, at the Olympics in Turin, Italy, it became apparent that American athletes needed their own chef at the Games “to ensure that the athletes were adequately and safely nourished during the roughly three weeks of training and competition.” (NYT ) One of the most decorated American Olympians, Julie Mancuso, spent the night before winning a gold metal foraging for food.  That turned into fiasco and ended with Mancuso munching on granola bars for dinner.

Thus, the American High Performance Chef position was born.  In Sochi, Allen Tran has been tasked with feeding hundreds of American athletes quality meals to enhance their performance.  “Nutrition can make a good athlete great or a great athlete good,” Tran said. “Nutrition is the fuel for performance. An athlete’s physical training is crucial, but that training cannot be optimal if the fuel isn’t optimal.” While you can certainly win a gold metal on granola bars, it certainly isn’t ideal.  Tran is a sports dietician, and gained much of his experience from the University of Utah’s Department of Exercise and Sport Science

This didn’t prepare him for the race to the ingredients he has been engaged in though.  He is preparing his meals from the basement of a hotel in the western Caucacus region.  Even finding the ingredients he couldn’t bring from Utah were difficult.  Tran relays, “we were in battle with the Koreans who bought out all the rice noodles in Sochi,” Tran said. “They spent $35,000 in groceries. But luckily, we knew about an alternative market, so we responded. We got our game on, too. It’s an international competition not just for the slopes but for groceries.”

For the athletes, in order to feel confident and healthy, eating recognizable foods is crucial and also helps them become less susceptible to illness or gastric difficulties.

One of the foods that didn’t reach Chef Tran was the high-quality Greek yogurt, Chobani.  Chobani isn’t only a sponsor of the American team, they were providing their popular and healthy product to the athletes: a familiar taste of home that also fueled their bodies to perform at optimum levels.

Or at least, that was the plan.  I was surprised to read about how there has been a dairy ban from Russia to the United States for the last few years.  Although the company made made the best of it by donating all of the product meant for Sochi to the local food banks, it highlights the issues that Chef Tran must deal with in order to feed the athletes that make us so proud back at home.  But as Tran states: “Some chefs strive to win medals or awards for an inventive recipe. I get a lot of meaning out of contributing to a gold medal performance.”