Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Preparing for the Olympics - an Olympian challenge!

Having had friends who've been participants at previous Olympic Games, I've been regaled with tales of some of the goings-on in previous Olympic Villages, built to house the athletes. It seems that athletes are known for partying as well as participating!

I've been interested to see how the Chinese authorities would handle the housing of athletes. They obviously want to provide the best possible facilities, out of national pride, but they also have their own cultural imperatives. How would they cope with a group of super-performers from all over the world, all of whom have different living standards, dietary preferences and social customs?

It seems they're doing a pretty good job, all things considered. The Olympic Village looks to be very nice, judging from published descriptions and photographs.

China has pulled out all the stops for the 2008 Olympics, which it promises will be the best ever.

The 66-hectare Village has laid on everything from Peking Duck to Chinese massage and has armies of smiling volunteers on hand to help guests. Only the evening entertainment sucks.

Gambling in the games room is prohibited, a sign says, and the DVDs on offer are all strictly family movies.

"Is too many smiley and good behavior. No TV and no frozen," complained Kazakh canoeing trainer Alexandr Davydov in broken English, referring to the absence of a fridge in the apartments where one might have been able to keep a cold beer.

"Just sitting in the apartment each night," he sighed.

Still, the guys at least can console themselves that there are a record number of women athletes this year -- 45 percent of the total -- and that the fun factor has been worse.

In the 1932 Los Angeles games, women weren't even allowed in the Olympic Village, and in the Lake Placid Winter Games of 1980 athletes were housed in a newly built medium-security prison.

The authorities have even taken the needs of outsized athletes into account.

Brazilian triple jumper Jadel Gregorio, who towers over the average human being, expected to spend his first night in Beijing with half his legs hanging off the end of the bed.

Not so. His Chinese hosts, who are wowing foreign guests with their organizational feats, had already figured out Gregorio's 2.03 meter (6 ft 8 in) frame would overhang the Olympic Village beds and had tacked on a special half-meter extension.

They had also raised his shower head -- to as high as they could without lifting the ceiling. "These people think of every little thing," Gregorio told Reuters as he finished a high-carb pasta lunch in the Olympic Village, his impossibly long legs somehow folded under the table.

I hadn't realized the immensity of the challenge of cooking for all those thousands of athletes until I read this article.

BEIJING will be Garry Leahy's third Olympics. Not a bad run for anyone but Leahy isn't competing, he's responsible for managing the herculean task of feeding the athlete's village.

Between now and the end of the Paralympics, the Irish-born Sydney chef and his six international colleagues will preside over the production of about 3.5 million meals for athletes, coaches, staff, officials and media guests in a massive 24-hour, three-month kitchen operation.

"Well, it's obviously quite busy," understates Leahy, who has his previous experience at the Sydney and Athens games to draw on. "When we peaked in Athens we were capable of 6000 meals an hour. I managed 70 chefs on a shift - apprentices, chefs, cooks, head chefs."

At the Beijing Games there will be almost 7000 managers, chefs and employees working in catering for the Olympic Village dining hall: a vast facility the size of three US football fields that can seat up to 6000 diners. Leahy quit his Sydney chef job and left for China at the end of June to set up the vast kitchen in Beijing and plan the frenetic months ahead.

Leahy's employer, the US catering company Aramark, which has catered for every summer Olympic Games since 1968, has developed a world menu of more than 800 recipes for the Beijing Games. Chinese, Mediterranean and international food will feature and nutrition information for every meal is provided at the point of service in English, Chinese and French.

Leahy says the menu is broadly similar to that served in the Athens and Sydney Games. "For breakfast we're going to have scrambled eggs, sauteed zucchini, we have a red miso on, a congee, roasted vegetables, cauliflower with lemon and saffron rice, octopus with peppers, chicken with chickpeas," he says. "Red miso and congee are so popular - in Athens we were going through maybe 100-150 litres a day."

... there's a vast range of special dietary needs to provide for: lean protein, whole grains and raw salads are available round the clock to meet the diverse needs of everyone from weightlifters to gymnasts. The caterers also have to take into account vegetarian, halal and kosher food requirements, plus food allergies and cultural differences. "It's really healthy food, it's good for you," Leahy says.

Sounds like a heck of a job! I'm glad my relatively meager culinary skills aren't being put to the test there!

The Chinese authorities have also mounted a huge campaign to prepare their capital city and their people for the massive influx of foreign visitors.

Up to 1,000 Chinese families are opening up their homes to Olympic visitors, a move that would have been unheard of before the reform and opening up of China in the 1980s.

But the hosts could still be in for a culture shock.

Retired school teacher Yuan Xioaoqing, who is opening up her home, said "Foreign students like to stay out all night on the weekend. But in more intellectual and traditional Chinese households there is no way the kids would go out like that."

Beijing has learnt a lesson from the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Dog meat is off the menu in the Chinese capital during the Olympics in case animal rights groups are offended.

Exotic names and alarming translations abound in Chinese restaurants which are being given a linguistic makeover, though only in select restaurants.

Out goes the traditionally named "husband and wife's lung slice" appetizer which is being replaced by the more linguistically correct "beef and ox tripe in chili sauce."

But no mention was made of the many popular establishments that have donkey on the menu.

The authorities have also worked hard to eliminate "Chinglish" from road signs and menus in the run-up to the Olympics, even if efforts have been a little hit and miss.

Gone is the infamous "Racist Park" signpost for the Ethnic Minorities Park.

Anyone hoping to scoop up a bagful of cheap pirate movies or music could be in for a disappointment. The city has announced a round-the-clock drive to stamp out bootleg sellers, but pirated DVDs are still available if you know where to look.

Yet however much they are obsessed by security and a burning desire to portray the squeaky clean image of a well ordered society, the Chinese insist the welcome will be warm.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said: "China is a safe place. Please be assured. China is a nation with great hospitality and courtesy."

For China's sake, I really hope these Olympic Games will be a huge success. China is still reflexively suspicious of foreigners. They have long memories there, and (rightly) haven't forgotten European and American and Japanese exploitation of China over many centuries. If they can show the world that they've "arrived" in terms of their ability to put on a world-class event like the Olympics, I think it'll do a great deal for their national pride: and I hope many of the visitors to China will realize that it's truly a great nation in its own right, perhaps struggling with its transition to world power status, but nevertheless worthy of genuine respect.

That way, we'll all win at these Olympic Games.


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