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Welcome to the gluten-free, sushi-less Olympic Games

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The Tokyo Olympic Games are finally upon us. Most of the attention will be given to the athletes, the sports, the empty stands and, of course, COVID-19. But every Olympics brings the gigantic task of feeding an entire village of high-performing humans from all over the world.

In Tokyo, that means organizers need to feed 48,000 people every day amid a global pandemic.

Unlike previous Olympics, athletes aren’t allowed to go to restaurants outside the village, so the food offering needs to be tasty yet comprehensive and appropriate for all diets. Organizers are offering over 700 menu options, which they say is a record.

From fresh roti from a clay oven to conchiglie, you can get almost anything in the village. No matter where you’re from, you should be able to find what you need.

Diets will be separated into three main groups: Western, Japanese and Asian. The latter will include Vietnamese, Indian and Chinese foods.

As with every aspect of the pandemic-postponed Olympics, the virus will cast a long shadow on how people are fed. Most meals served during the Olympics will be informal dishes – no formal dining. The main two-storey cafeteria has 3,000 seats, supported by 2,000 staff at peak hours.

Big delegations like the United States, Russia and China will have their own facilities. Food is available 24 hours a day in the village and all of it’s free.

Seating has been reduced and athletes must keep mealtimes as short as possible. Since athletes must leave the village within 48 hours of the end of their event, food facilities will likely get less busy as the games move on.

People in the village will have access to staples such as ramen and udon noodles, accompanied by miso, a well-known fermented soybean paste central to Japanese cuisine. Grilled wagyu beef, okonomiyaki, sashimi and oden will also be available. And of course, the highly coveted bento box will be available, along with zaru soba, sukiyaki and takoyaki. All these traditional Japanese dishes are loved by many around the world.

However, due to stringent food safety rules, sushi, of all things, won’t be available. Only canned tuna and cooked shrimp. This will likely come as a disappointment as sushi is arguably the most well-known Japanese dish for westerners.

One can only assume that the last thing Olympic organizers want during a pandemic is a foodborne illness outbreak, so health-care services remain on alert for a potential COVID-19 wave.

As with anything food-related these days, meals will accommodate just about every religious and dietary restriction. Tokyo will be the first Games where an entire gluten-free section is offered.

Beyond the village lies the incredible complexities of making a food supply chain work to feed the Olympic athletes. Supply-chain experts know that 30 per cent of costs and more than 70 per cent of problems in transportation occur in the last mile, from warehouses to the Olympic village.

And this is Tokyo, one of the most populous cities in the world, where close to 38 million live. Travelling anywhere in the region can take hours. Yet fresh, safe food has to be delivered daily to the village.

To add to the difficulty, there’s also an extra layer of surveillance and quality assurance. With the sketchy history of performance-enhancing drug use by some delegations, the temptation to taint food is always there. Athletes are always one burrito away from losing a medal. So the entire food supply chain needs to be highly secure.

As if COVID-19 wasn’t enough for organizers, Tokyo is expected to experience 30C-plus weather for most of the Olympics. Keeping everyone cool will be a challenge. Nations will be allowed to bring recovery drinks and snack packs. So some aspects of food supply will come from the delegations themselves.

Tokyo will be a very different Olympics, and the food facet will be no exception. At least organizers won’t need to figure out how to feed thousands of fans at events, since they won’t be there.

Let’s hope COVID-19 doesn’t ruin the Games, one way or another.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

Sylvain is one of our Thought Leaders. For interview requests, click here.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the authors’ alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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