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Diets of Athletes at the Olympic Games

The diet of the athletes at Olympic Games over the last 100 or so years differs greatly from that of the modern-day elite athlete (see also the Diets of Current Olympic Athletes). Although the impact of diet on performance is now well known, in years past the research was not available to provide the athletes and coaches with the appropriate knowledge.

The diets of Olympians past may be surprising based on our current knowledge. Take for example George S. Patton Jr, who finished 5th in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, who later went on to fame as a US Army general. It was noted that in his preparation, he used to eat a plate of raw steak and salad after each training session. On the final day of the competition, he prepared for the cross-country run by receiving an injection of opium (from Wallechinsky & Loucky, 2012).

A study of the diet of athletes in Berlin in 1936 (Schenk, 1936) based on the analysis of the diets of 4700 competitors from forty-two nations, determined an average intake of 320g of protein, 270g of fat and 850g of carbohydrate, with some athletes consuming 7300 kcal/d. He also found that the Olympic athletes often focused on meat in the diet, averaging nearly half a kilogram of meat daily, while others, however, stressed the importance of carbohydrate. Specifically, the athletes from England, Finland and Holland regularly consumed porridge, the Americans ate shredded wheat or corn flakes in milk, the Chileans and Italians pasta, and the Japanese consumed a pound of rice daily.

Schenk published another paper (Schenk, 1937) on the diet of athletes in the Olympic Village in Berlin. This paper compared the intake of different foods from a variety of nations. For example, the athletes from the US in 1936 consumed beefsteak with an average daily intake of 125 grams of butter or cotton oil, three eggs, custard for dessert and 1.5 liters of milk. The diet of the Americans also included white bread, dinner rolls, fresh vegetables and salads. In addition, of the Olympic athletes he surveyed, there were three dietary supplements used: glucose was taken by athletes from Austria, Egypt, France and Germany; a malt supplement by Austrian athletes; and a lecithin supplement by Polish athletes.

hThe French team enjoying their wine with their meal
from the Olympic Games Official Report Berlin 1936 The French team enjoying their wine with their meal
from the Olympic Games Official Report Berlin 1936

A survey taken at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 (Jokl, 1964) reported the diets of Olympic athletes to be high energy, and be high in fat and protein - they consumed an average daily energy intake of 18,841 kJ, with 40% of energy coming from carbohydrate, 20% from protein, and 40% from fat.

Although there have not been any more recent significant specific studies of the diets of Olympic athletes, the diets of elite athletes have been studied. Such data has shown a wide variation in dietary intake. Grandjean (1997) summarized energy intakes of athletes from China, Finland, US and Czechoslovakia, and found a range from 7699 to 24,845 kJ. Group percentages of energy from carbohydrate, protein, and fat ranged from 33 to 57%, 12 to 26%, and 29 to 49%, respectively. Such a wide range is expected due to body size and energy expenditure.

Sport nutrition is still a young discipline, and it is expected the knowledge of how diet affects performance to continue to grow. In years to come, the diet of today's athletes will probably be seen as far from optimal.


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