The Hunger Games: What do Olympians eat during the Games?

Athletes must be wise, do their homework when selecting food

The Hunger Games: What do Olympians eat during the Games?
Gold medallist Chloe Kim tweeted about being "down for some ice cream" while competing, but food is a big deal for Olympians during the Games. © Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

By Foster Klug, The Associated Press

First, U.S. snowboarding star Chloe Kim tweeted about being "down for some ice cream" while competing in Pyeongchang, then about being "hangry" because she hadn't finished her breakfast sandwich.

Clearly, food is a big deal for Olympians, and it's usually much more complicated than ice cream and sandwiches: the very specific, highly calibrated fuel they put in their bodies — for energy, for health, for warmth, for a psychological and physiological edge — is an important part of what makes them excel.

Korean food is some of the world's finest — savoury, salty soups with fish so tender it falls off the bone; thick slabs of grilled pork and beef backed with spicy kimchi that many Korean grandmothers swear cures the common cold. But it's very different from what many foreign Olympians are used to.

"What I recommend for athletes right now in competition mode is to be as safe as possible. This might happen once in a lifetime; you don't want to blow it with just having an upset stomach because you've eaten something that's different to what your body's used to," Susie Parker-Simmons, a sports dietitian for the U.S. Olympic Committee said in an interview in Pyeongchang. "I say, as soon as the games is over, go at it; enjoy, be adventurous."

Feeding the athletes

The U.S. team has its own chefs and dietitians, as well as two "nutrition centres" here. And then there's the food at two athletes villages, where nearly 3,000 athletes from 90 different countries — most of whom strictly follow unique food routines — get fed.

The goal is to provide lots of everything.

The two villages each have massive, 4,000-square-metre dining rooms where nearly 500 chefs and cooking assistants provide a combined 18,000 meals per day. Each dining room is open 24 hours a day and offers about 450 different types of food in buffets that include Western, Asian, Korean, Halal, Kosher, vegetarian and gluten-free dishes, David Kihyun Kwak, the director of food and beverage at the Pyeongchang Olympics, said in an interview.

To determine what to serve at Pyeongchang, Kwak's team analyzed food data for the past five Olympics and also worked closely with other nations' nutrition specialists.

The amount of raw ingredients used each day to feed the athletes is staggering: 700 kilograms of beef, 450 kg of eggs, 350 kg of lamb, 200 kg of bacon, 170 kg of chicken, 100 kg of rice, 3,800 kg of fruits and vegetables, about 15,000 pieces of bread and 800 pizzas.

Most Olympic athletes don't eat outside of the villages because of worries about the purity of ingredients, Kwak said. The United States did tests before the 2008 Beijing Olympics that found some local chicken contained enough steroids to trigger positive test results.

Experts examine ingredients closely for possible contamination that could threaten athletes' health or disrupt doping tests. South Korea's Ministry of Food and Drug Safety has sent more than a dozen food safety specialists to take ingredients samples to buses equipped with fast-testing laboratories to look for potential problems before the food even gets eaten.

Home cooking

Finland's Riikka Valila, the oldest women's ice hockey player in Olympic history at 44, likes the food options here but misses the "really good bread" back in Finland. She said some of her teammates on gluten-free diets have brought food from home.

The Americans shipped over 85 pallets, each about 6 feet tall and 3 feet deep and wide, filled with pastas, sauces, peanut butter, grains and plants like quinoa, and spices, Parker-Simmons said.

There's food meant to help with performance and recovery, but there's also "psychological food," which Parker-Simmons explains like this: Say an athlete training her whole life for the Olympics fails. She takes it hard; she stops eating. This is when the dietitians will turn to something special — a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, maybe, or Cheez-Its.

Vincent Zhou, a U.S. figure skater, said he needs a lot of carbs, "before, between and after sessions," to fend off fatigue. "It hasn't been very difficult finding comfort food," he said.

Eating for performance

The work to optimize nutrition can seem as thorough as the work to perfect the sports skills.

Dietitians have to regularly test cross-country skiers, for instance, who have the highest energy expenditure of any sport in the world, Parker-Simmons said. An average-sized woman will need 4,000 calories or more per day to train and compete; a typical man needs about 7,000 calories, she said. Ski jumpers, on the other hand, sometimes have to drop 10 kilograms below their natural body weight, while keeping up their muscle mass and energy.

For the athletes, sheer abundance can be a danger.

When U.S. figure skater Adam Rippon got to Pyeongchang a coach told him about the last Winter Games in Sochi, when one of her athletes became very excited about all the food available even as his performance in training tanked.

The coach finally understood what was happening when the athlete donned his costume for the short program: "He'd been in the cafeteria the whole time; he'd gained seven pounds before the competition," Rippon said with a laugh. "And my coach is sitting next to me, and he was like, `ha, ha, ha, ha,' and he turned to me and said, `You'd better not get fat while you're here."'

Chloe Kim, by the way, finally got her ice cream — and a gold medal. She could be seen eating her treat while being swarmed by reporters.