No Peking Duck for Olympic Athletes?

[UPDATED at the end of the post]

I’m a fan of the Beijing Olympic Committee’s regular press releases, if only because – amongst the hail of platitudes – you occasionally get a gem like the one issued on November 9. Entitled “Chinese cuisine to highlight Olympic menu,” it then spent two paragraphs explaining why it probably wouldn’t:

“The menu designers will fully consider the different cultural background, dietary habits, diets and behavioral patterns of the athletes … and meet their demands with dishes of different styles, while offering the best Chinese dishes …”

Alas, no hints were offered as to what will represent the “best Chinese dishes.” So I wondered: would it be classic canteen affair? Fried noodles, say, and some sort of mushy dumpling? Or would the Olympic village go high end, with shark’s fin and abalone served beside bird’s nest? At a minimum, I hoped (from a journalist’s standpoint) that we might learn the sorts of diets fed to China’s own carefully trained Olympians. Were those diets – as I’ve long suspected – decidedly Western (on a nutritional basis)?

I slipped this one into my “follow story” folder and thought nothing more of it until yesterday, when – quietly – Xinhua announced: “Not much Chinese food in Beijing Olympic Village.” If you’re a Chinese nationalist, it doesn’t get much worse than this:

“Asian-style food including Chinese, Japanese and Korean dishes would together account for 30 percent of the menu designed for athletes in the Olympic Village,” said Xiang Ping, deputy director in charge of the Games Service Department of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG).

She said that a preliminary menu had been drawn up and sent for expert appraisal, with results expected next month. “Western food will comprise most of the menu,” she said.

Enter Xinhua’s well-worn sense of (well-earned) national (culinary) pride. It seems that someone – an editor? a reporter? – senses a cover-up:

She did not disclose whether the famous Beijing roasted duck or Kung Pao Chicken (diced chicken with peanuts) would appear on the menu.

Now, I happen to like both of those dishes. But the thought of a table full of highly-trained and tuned (say) Norwegian cyclists sitting down for a delicious meal of duck fat and plum sauce in advance of their events is, well, unlikely. Certainly, the Chinese athletes know better (the immortal Wang Yifu, excepted), and – assuming that they, too, are staying at the Olympic village – might that be one reason why the Western (food) concession was offered so easily?

There are several levels of ‘interesting’ here, not least of which is the (self-inflicted) need to show that Chinese cuisine is just as nutritious for athletes as, say, such un-tasty Western delicacies as wheat grass or a salad topped with vinegar and oil. Please note: I’m not making an argument on behalf of either. But at the same time I’m pretty sure that somebody – somewhere in Beijing – is hard at work to make a winning argument on behalf of healthy Chinese food.

The final menu is scheduled to be released in January.

[UPDATE: I guess it’s just a matter of how you look at it. This afternoon China Daily pulled its “Not much Chinese food in Beijing Olympic Village” story from the website and replaced it with this far more positive headline: “Asian food to take up 1/3 of menu at Olympic Village.” We’ll be filing this one in the Glass Half Full/Empty Dept. Sadly, there’s no more mention of Kung Pao Chicken or Peking Duck, but instead we’re left with a dry – and believable – recitation of simple facts: “As required by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Olympic menu will reflect international tastes based on the concept of sharing and mutual respect.”

Face saved, let’s move on.]


  1. Sadly, the athletes at the Olympics from non-Chinese, non-Western backgrounds will have little to choose from (though I wonder if Atlanta, Sydney or Athens were any different in this regard). I’m sure you’d get nothing but blank looks from the Olympic cooks and committee members if you asked about cuisines from Africa, Latin America, and other parts of Asia. I suppose the teams from countries like the U.S., China and England are typically much larger than those of Ghana, Uruguay and Jordan, but I’m sure that’s of little comfort to the latter.

    I fully agree that many of the Chinese ‘specialties’ would be about the worst thing the athletes could eat before their events. There are some healthy options in China, but the health-nut fad has certainly yet to find its way here. Healthy eating in China consists of choosing foods that make for a good balance of tastes, colors, textures and nutrients, but is meant for survival (read: calories), not performance.

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