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What's Cooking at the Olympics?

Oh, about a million meals to suit athletes of all sizes and nutritional persuasions

By Ross AtkinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 30, 1992



BARCELONA, SPAIN

AS Jerry Lee Lewis might put it, there's a whole lotta eatin' goin' on at the Barcelona Olympics. And much of it is happening in the Olympic Village, where 15,000 people reside, including more than 10,000 athletes with appetites and diets as varied as their physiques - from featherweight female gymnasts to heavyweight boxers.

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Feeding them all requires keeping the huge dining hall open around the clock to accommodate athletes on different training and competition schedules. (Some like predawn breakfasts to allow for "proper digestion" before competitions, for example.)

To fill so many mouths also means preparing mountainous quantities of food daily: three tractor-trailer-loads of fresh fruit, 2,200 pounds of assorted pasta, and 40,000 slices of fresh bread, baked only a block or so away.

Lest supplies run low, 40 acres of dry storage sit on two levels below the cafeteria in what will become a parking garage after the Olympics. Three well-stocked refrigeration units make for a plentiful frozen inventory. ARA Services Inc. of Philadelphia, the official food-service manager, estimates that 1 million meals will be served to athletes - 2.5 million if you add coaches, security staff, volunteers, and others.

Informal exit polls indicate a high approval rating for the quality of the offerings, too.

"I have received only congratulations for the food," says Armand Calvo, Village director. "The only complaint has come from the Spanish crown prince Felipe [on Spain's yachting team]. When asked about the food, he said the problem is he is going to become fat."

To make sure of a smooth operation, the Barcelona Olympic Organizing Committee (COOB) hired ARA to oversee the food service in conjunction with Comeco, a Spanish contractor responsible for the meals and concessions at 42 sites for officials, press, spectators, and athletes.

ARA Services was engaged because it enjoys a wealth of previous Olympic experience, having managed the dining facilities at four other summer Games, as well as at three Winter Olympics.

John Scanlan, ARA vice president and project manager for the Barcelona Olympics, says that the company works with team trainers in advance "so that all nutritional and taste requirements are met. But we know that there are surprises."

One of them here has been the amount of white rice consumed. "We've had to up the production," says Ed Nelson, ARA's operations liaison at the Olympic Village. "We had no idea the athletes would eat so much." He doesn't know the exact figures, but he says the kitchen team responsible for preparing the rice is working constantly, unusual in a high-volume kitchen.

The biggest tests for the food-service folks typically come early in the Games, Mr. Nelson says, when the most people are in the village. As the Games progress, athletes begin checking out.

Perhaps the staff's most intense period occurred right after the opening ceremony last Saturday night, when about 8,500 athletes were looking to make a Dagwood Bumstead-like raid of the commissary. The kitchen staff was ready with a streamlined menu and disposable cutlery and plates so as not to overtax dishwashers. Two hours later, the mission was deemed a success. Much of the cooking is being handled by upper-level student-chefs and their professors from Spain and France.

ELSON says that Olympic menus are refined and reworked from one Olympics to the next and will be altered as these Games progress to reflect the likes and dislikes of villagers, who may eat as often and as much as they like. (ARA bills COOB $6 per meal per athlete.) A nucleus of items high in carbohydrates, protein, and fiber and low in fat are considered staples around which the athletes tailor their meals.

"There is a good variety, so you can stick to your own diet," says British runner Jill Hunter, who agrees with the Spanish prince that "the temptation is to eat too much." Many athletes seem eager to try ethnic and regional foods - once, at least - and a popular local dish, the traditional Spanish paella, is a regular feature. Baked squid and octopus, Catalan favorites, have also won some converts.

"Our motto is, `Anybody can get anything they want,' " Mr. Scanlan says - including kosher foods for Jewish athletes and halal selections for Muslims. The British requested hot toast - hot out of the toaster.

A conservative eater can find old standbys, including hamburgers and french fries, while those with open minds and empty stomachs are invited to expand their horizons. (See sample menu.)

To produce this horn of plenty day in and day out over a three-week period requires an Olympian effort in its own right. "The days are long, 14 to 16 hours, and requires you to be alert," says Nelson. "In the United States you hear the expression `peak performer,' and you really have to be at the top of your game ... from the top management all the way down to the person serving on the line."