Race to the finish, via a chocolate shake

The London Olympics will boast the biggest McDonald’s in the world.

A chocolate milkshake
A chocolate milkshake. Photograph: Majcher, via Creative Commons

By now, we all know two things about the catering arrangements at the forthcoming Olympic Games. First, a bottle of beer (German! and not even a patriotic pint of the stuff!) will cost visitors over £4. And secondly, we’ll be playing host to the world’s largest McDonald’s for the duration of the event. Spectators, it seems, would be well-advised to eat before they go in – but what of the competitors themselves?

Jeni Pearce, head of performance nutrition for Team GB, shrugs off the presence of a 24-hour branch of the burger chain in the Athletes’ Village. “After the first day of the Olympics, there must be, what, 300 athletes whose dream is over. So I don’t have a problem with McDonald’s – I just don’t want them around the athletes who are still to compete.” She’s more concerned with the challenge of catering for diets ranging from 800–4,500 kilocalories a day in a single buffet at the Team GB holding camp in Loughborough: “I put desserts round the corner. If you need one, you can go and get it; if not, you aren’t tempted.”

Once they get to the Games, however, the team are out of her hands. “Can you imagine walking into the biggest supermarket in the world and it’s all free? They have to be focused in the athletes’ dining room, and ignore the Magnums and the fries.” 

Jeni permits only one deviation from the athletes’ personalised menu plans: a piece of the opening ceremony cake “but just a tiny one, so it doesn’t interfere with their diets”. In many sports, a kilogram could make all the difference, she frets. “If you overeat and your uniform’s too tight, well, as an archer, you won’t shoot right.” 

Locog’s head of catering, Jan Matthews and her team will be serving 65,000 meals in the main athletes’ dining room on the busiest day of the Games – which, along with catering to nine million spectators and 22,000 media visitors, puts her in charge of the biggest peacetime catering organisation in the world. She’ll need to provide a taste of home for athletes for more than 204 different countries – yet another area in which Team GB enjoys a home advantage. Even the bacteria’s familiar.

Buffet behaviour

Food hygiene is also a concern. Matthews must be alert for contamination with “malicious intent – we need traceability all the way along. Everyone working with food must be vetted.” Pearce meanwhile is obsessed with hand sanitising gel and buffet etiquette, and has a no sweating in the dining room rule: “I don’t care how famous you are. Have a shower first. It only takes eight hours to come down with an infection that could wipe out eight years of training.”

Poppy seeds are off the menu in case they show up in anti-doping tests and there’s a plethora of dietary requirements: one member of team GB has a banana allergy and there are Muslim athletes who have chosen to observe their Ramadan fast during the Games: “the hardest thing is maintaining hydration levels”. 

But while the diet she describes – carbs and grilled meat, beetroot juice with bicarbonate of soda, all washed down with chocolate milkshakes – may sound dull, most athletes, she says, will eat anything if it helps them in the competition. “Some of them don’t even care what it looks or tastes like: they’ll just stick it in a blender and glug it down . . . the worse it tastes, the better they think it’ll be for them.” 

Once they’ve competed, they’re free to eat what they want – but you still shouldn’t expect to spot Tom Daly diving into a pool of Big Macs. “Pigging out for an athlete is a bit different than for the rest of us,” Jeni says. “They’re just not used to rich foods.” Beetroot burgers all round then.