As Birmingham gears up for the Commonwealth Games, Sharon Madigan uses her experience at the Tokyo Olympics to give an insight into what sports dietitians can expect.
This summer is a real summer of sport as England host two major sporting events in the UEFA European Women's Football Championship and the Commonwealth Games.
Being so local, organisation and logistics of food provision and support will be much easier for teams from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland compared to events further afield – we know the food and due to costs, it is more likely that sports will bring their nutritionist to these events or certainly have them drop in and out.
Colleagues and members of the BDA Sports Nutrition Group will have been arriving in venues or be liaising with the catering and fine-tuning the interventions with their athletes.
Last summer I had just arrived with the boxing team in Japan as part of Team Ireland. We were setting up as part of a multi-nations sparring camp in Miyazaki, a two-hour flight from Tokyo. I would stay there for nine days and then I would move to the main Team Ireland camp, which was in Fukuroi city, about two hours car transfer from Tokyo. Unfortunately, due to COVID restrictions, the main thing we experienced was just buses, cars and planes!
But the planning and preparation for nutrition support go back further than just arriving in the country of the games and the nutrition team was involved in many areas of the pre preparation.
This timeline gives a flavour for how wide the nutrition role was within the wider Team Ireland preparation:
The wider nutrition team delivered comprehensive one-to-one support to athletes both in Japan and on the ground from Ireland. The quality of the food within the main camp hotel was excellent and their flexibility was fantastic. The options that they gave also allowed us to reduce shopping for items such as fruit and yoghurts and supported the food that we had shipped to Japan for our camp from sponsors. The availability of Irish food that we brought with us helped with snack provision and even made the catering for athletes on the long airport transfer to camp hotel easier and less expensive.
Without a doubt COVID-19 set the tone of these Games and the priority was to get everyone to and from Japan without COVID, which was achieved. Social distancing within the camps was going to be an issue but it was much better than expected. Eating still remained a social event and we were able to construct more outdoor eating areas, which was a great solution.
One location posed a number of challenges in terms of logistics during COVID and the massive restrictions initially, and with food provision. There were delays in getting sight of menus and this was partly to do with another country leading the organisation. Then, following this, there were major challenges around variety and amounts of food, especially when you had athletes who were very picky eaters. We overcame some of these with extra shopping but negotiation of changes on the menu was almost impossible even for the smallest of changes.
Observing this showed how important the initial recce visit and subsequent communications with the hotels within the other camps were. The nutrition recce was undertaken on the basis that there were several food and cultural challenges for us in Japan. These included:
Food can have a massive impact on the direct performance of the athletes, especially when you take into consideration other factors such as heat, humidity, and long-haul travel. We also need to remember that food can have a big impact on how athletes feel – creating a home from home, the social aspects etc.
Sports nutritionists and dietitians can bring many of their clinical and organisational skills to prepping athletes for a major games and I am sure food and diet will appear in a number of success stories over the coming months. From my experiences at a number of major games I know that when the food is right the athletes (and others) are happy!