The food of the mighty Olympian? Bananas, about 15 tons of them

July 07, 1996|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,SUN STAFF

The Olympics begin this month in Atlanta. Already the television screen has started showing amazing bodies performing extraordinary feats. As I watch, I find myself wondering, "What do those people eat?"

The short answer seems to be they eat a lot, especially a lot of bananas. Outside Atlanta, in the community of College Park, mounds of bananas are being gathered for the Olympic athletes. One reason bananas, which are being stockpiled in a large climate-controlled room, are popular with athletes is because bananas contain potassium, which help prevents muscle cramps.

Just how popular? About 15 tons worth. That is how many bananas Cynthia Dexter-Bowen, purchasing director for the Olympic Village, has planned to lay in for the period between July 6 and Aug. 7, the time the Olympic Village dining room is open. The Olympic Games begin July 19 and end Aug. 4, but the dining hall is in business a few days before and after the games. The "banana room" is being used to ripen and store bananas, as well as some apples, oranges and melons, she told me. As the games begin and the bananas ripen, fruit will be trucked from storage down to the Olympic Village. There, bananas will feed both eaters sitting down in the dining room and patrons of various fruit stations set up in the village for casual, grab-and-run eating. Dexter-Bowen works for ARAMARK, a food-service operation with headquarters in Philadelphia. It is in the business of putting on big feeds at stadiums. It operates the concessions, for instance, at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Not long ago, I talked on the telephone about the Olympic food scene with Dexter-Bowen and a couple of her ARAMARK colleagues. They were Ann C. Grandjean, who specializes in sports nutrition, and Louis Ferretti, a Rhode Island chef who is in charge of overseeing the meals served in the village during the 33 days of the games. ARAMARK is one of many food-service operations working at various sites during the Atlanta Olympics. It is responsible for serving food in the Olympic Village, the dorms and dining rooms where most athletes live.

Such big feeds always generate big statistics. In my telephone conversation with the Olympic Village folks, I recall hearing something about 10,000 athletes eating the equivalent of 60,000 meals a day, whipped up from 550 recipes by 100 cooks working in modular kitchens made by connecting 26 specially outfitted tractor-trailers.

I was more interested in big secrets. Namely, I was looking for a few tips on how to make myself a champion athlete by imitating the eating habits of the guys and gals who go for the gold. Grandjean, the sports nutritionist, did not offer me much hope.

Olympic athletes are different from you and me, she said, "primarily because they do what you and I should be doing, they get off their behinds and exercise." Since these athletes are constantly burning calories, they are also constantly eating. Some athletes eat nine times a day, she said. These can be small meals, but they are meals nonetheless.

Swimmers in heavy training, a group Grandjean categorized as among the biggest eaters she has encountered, sometimes put away 6,000 calories a day, almost triple the daily intake of calories recommended for guys like me, who spend July evenings sitting on a couch watching athletes on TV. Since the athletes work harder than us couch potatoes, they get to eat like field hands, and nobody yells at them.

At the time of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, I read that some sprinters were touting the benefits of eating bee pollen. Apparently this theory, that bee pollen was the breakfast of champions, has fallen from favor. Grandjean had not heard it. She did say that one current theory on how to increase endurance and put on muscle mass is to eat foods that contain creatine. This, she said, is an amino acid found in red meat. I liked the idea of steak as a training food.

She said athletes competing in the Olympics often have two distinct styles of eating. They employ one style of eating before they compete, and another after their event.

Before competition, they follow well-established routines, in many cases eating only foods they have carried to the Olympics from their hometowns, she said. The athletes eat these so-called "CARE packages from home," Grandjean said, because they don't want to risk getting indigestion and throwing their bodies -- their perfectly tuned engines -- out of sync just before a big race.

After they have finished competing, the pressure is off. The athletes traditionally loosen up and try out some of the dishes of the region they are visiting, she said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.