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Fueling the Olympic fire

U.S. athletes who know what's best for their "machinery" will stick with good old American food and steer clear of those Australian temptations.

Did you hear the one about the Olympic athlete who went to Sydney and wanted to eat like the locals?

For breakfast, he ate googs topped with dead horse and toast slathered with vegemite, and he ordered a large flat white; at lunch, he washed down a pie floater with a stubbie; and in the evening, he dined on barbecued chook, balmain bug and yabbies. A tinnie quenched his thirst. The next day he chundered and couldn't compete.

The moral of the story for athletes is that the Olympic Games is not the time to experiment with the local cuisine, or any other food, for that matter.

"It is important for the athletes to remember what got them there," says Dan Benardot, co-director of the Laboratory for Elite Athlete Performance at Georgia State University in Atlanta and author of Nutrition for Serious Athletes (Human Kinetics, 1999). "Routine is very critical, and that includes food."

By the way, our foolish athlete had eggs doused with ketchup, toast with yeast extract spread and coffee with cream for breakfast; a meat pie sitting in a puddle of peas and a bottle of beer for lunch; and barbecued chicken (chook), a lobsterlike crustacean (balmain bug) and crawfish (yabbies) with a can of beer for dinner. Chunder is what happened when all that food upset his stomach.

For the thousands of athletes in Australia for the Olympics, which begin Friday, the temptation to vary from their routines is great. In an effort to cater to the culinary tastes of athletes from around the globe, the Olympic Village offers every cuisine imagineable, says Benardot, who works with Olympic track and field athletes and gymnasts.

"When they enter the Olympic Village, it's going to be eye-boggling," Benardot says. "We tell them there is a time to try those foods, and that is after the competition."

Ann Grandjean, executive director of the International Center for Sports Nutrition in Omaha, Neb., who has advised the U.S. Olympic Committee since 1978, has been warning athletes not to overindulge in the abundance of fresh fruits expected in the Olympic Village.

"Understanding how much fruit your body can tolerate during competition or what foods work best for performance is always a matter of trial and error," Grandjean told the Chicago Tribune. "It doesn't matter if you are a world-class sprinter or recreational runner. Listening to your body is the key factor."

The bodies of world-class athletes are like machines, and food is their fuel. Put the wrong food in, and the machines sputter. Add the right food, and the machine powers up smoothly.

Benardot, a veteran of three Olympics, who is in Sydney now, says that each athlete should know his or her limits. For instance, one athlete's pepper-covered salad is another's competition buster. Likewise, athletes in different sports approach their diets differently.

Sprinters, short-distance swimmers and gymnasts, among other athletes, have to be careful about drinking too much before competing, Benardot says. Too much hydration can make their muscles stiff, and for competitions that last less than two minutes, stiff muscles won't get anyone to the medal stand. Pregame meals for short-distance specialists should be consumed about 3{ hours before competition, Benardot says, and they should be almost all carbohydrates because they provide energy.

"They are concerned about their ability to compete fully for a minute and a half. They are much more carb-dependent and have to watch the fat," he says.

On the other end of the spectrum are long-distance runners, who eat their pregame meals about 2{ hours before competing and want their bodies to be in a state of "hyper hydration." They usually eat larger meals because they need the extra fuel.

"Storing extra fluid in the muscles makes them stiff, and many long-distance runners like the stiffness," he says. "Hydration is the single biggest issue about whether a long-distance runner can finish a race."

One thing that Olympic athletes won't have to worry about is the quality of the food and the drinkability of the water in Sydney. "If you close your eyes," says Benardot, who visited Sydney last November, "the cuisine is essentially American."

Some athletes are superstitious about their diets, and if they think a precompetition tuna sandwich is what fuels their success, then a tuna sandwich is what they must have. Benardot encourages athletes to bring food with them if that gives them peace of mind.

"Invariably, they will find food they like, but if you can give them a sense of security," they'll compete better.

In Sydney, the bigger concern might be allergies. It's springtime in Australia, and pollen will be flying. Athletes who have problems at home are likely to have them there, and they must take only medication that has been approved by the International Olympic Committee, Benardot says. Unapproved medication might show up on drug tests and lead to disqualification.

For the athletes in Sydney who aren't sneezing and wheezing, there will be plenty of opportunities to enjoy a vegemite sandwich. For those of us back home in the USA, we can take bets on the number of times TV commentators say "barbie" and how often NBC plays Men at Work's 1982 hit song Down Under:

"I come from a land down under

Where beer does flow and men chunder

Can't you hear, can't you hear the thunder?

You better run, you better take cover."

Well, at least you know what chunder is now.

Information from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was used in this report.


The opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Sydney, Australia, will be broadcast from 7:30 p.m. to midnight Friday on NBC. Daily coverage continues on NBC, CNBC and MSNBC through the closing ceremonies Oct. 1.