Bullfrog blues

Shaun McCarthy

July 19, 2012   |   Posted by Shaun McCarthy

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Today WWF and BioRegional have published their report on the progress of the London 2012 Games in meeting its sustainability objectives. It has taken a huge collective effort to put these Games on track to be the most sustainable to date – from the organisers, to campaign groups like these, and to an assurance body like ours which is tasked with being the bastion of impartiality and good evidence.

London 2012 will be my second Olympics, but I know that there will be particular aspects of these Games that will stand out.

Beijing 2008 - "Cockroach Kebabs"
Beijing 2008 - "Cockroach Kebabs"

I had the great honour to be part of the London 2012 observer team in Beijing and I learned a lot. It was immediately obvious that we were in a different part of the world when encountering the food. Stir fried bullfrog is a delicacy and the street vendors offer griddled insects on a skewer that I described as a “cockroach kebab” in a blog at the time. It probably wasn’t cockroach really but as I spend most of my time doing dull fact-based assurance it is sometimes good to use a bit of artistic licence in a blog. When we visited a back street restaurant where no English was spoken we pointed to a tasty looking picture of a dish on the wall to find ourselves presented with a plate of cold tripe (it was actually quite tasty). There were many places in the city offering great food but the food in the Olympic venues could not have been more different. Every outlet was the same joyless experience, every menu was the same, containing the same ten or so options, all of which were pre-prepared, processed, dehydrated, tasteless and boring. The packaging probably had more nutritional value. This meant people flooded to the golden arches and McDonald’s were the only show in town.

I was watching a TV debate at the weekend with a small number of well-respected commentators talking absolute tosh about London 2012 food. They were berating the “fact” that McDonald’s were the exclusive caterer, that London 2012 should reflect the diversity of the city through food and that local companies should have the opportunity to supply it. Had my TV been an old-fashioned cathode ray tube I may have been tempted to kick it in at this point but the modern ones don’t deliver a spectacular implosion in response to a well-placed boot so it is nowhere near as satisfying.

In fact, our food review concluded that LOCOG is doing all these things and more. I met McDonald’s recently and they are forecasting that 10% of the food provided will come from them. The remainder will be from other caterers. The LOCOG Food Vision has been a game-changer for the catering industry, setting unprecedented standards. Organic milk, free range eggs, Red Tractor certified meat, MSC certified fish (squid was a particular challenge) and Fairtrade products a-plenty. McDonald’s are no exception – they comply and source locally. They made a corporate decision to use Rainforest Alliance for their tea and coffee but other than that they comply fully.

I sampled the food at the Athlete’s Village commissioning event and it was great. Freshly prepared local ingredients and, because athletes eat a lot, plenty of it. Only a small fraction of the wide variety of food on offer was available for this event but I think athletes are in for a treat.

As a Commission we have always maintained that, taken in isolation, an Olympic and Paralympic Games is an inherently unsustainable thing to do. We can only call the Games truly sustainable if London 2012 is successful in influencing more sustainable behaviour in a substantial way. Will we see the golden arches replicating the Food Vision in Europe, in the USA, the rest of the world? Will other events and activities requiring large scale catering adopt LOCOG’s standards or even improve on them? We have come a long way from Beijing’s Bullfrog Blues but food Nirvana is still a long way off.

The Commission’s statement on BioRegional and WWF’s report can be found here.

Shaun McCarthy

July 2012 

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