Postponement of Summer Olympics forced a quick U-turn for USOPC foodservice

The sudden cancellation of the 2020 games created unique challenges for the team that feeds the athletes.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Talk about pivoting. Brian Knutson had just started in his position as Director of Food and Nutrition Services for the U.S Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) in February. Olympic team members started arriving to take up residence and train at the Committee’s headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. Team USA’s dietitian had worked with each sports team’s nutritionist to create targeted personal meal plans, and Knutson’s department was poised to feed 420 athletes a day.

Then all hell broke loose, as COVID-19 rapidly spread across the country and around the world.

“The International Olympic Committee was late to make an announcement about the postponement,” says Knutson, noting that it didn’t come until March 24. By then, his staff was already supervising the packing of 6,000 cases of food and other sponsored products destined for the Olympic Village in Tokyo. “The shipping containers were scheduled to go out April 6,” he says. Plus, his 24-member team had put a lot of preparation into setting up infrastructure and logistics, and everything was ready to go many months out.

The skills Knutson gained in his previous job as director of foodservice at Penrose-St. Francis hospital in Colorado Springs prepared him to act quickly in dealing with a health crisis, he believes. “I saw what was coming and got ahead of the curve,” he says. “A month before the announcement was made, we were already increasing service levels, cleaning and sanitizing the kitchen and dining areas more thoroughly and packaging food differently,” he says.

Once Colorado shut down the state’s restaurants, gyms and pools, most athletes returned home, with only about two dozen remaining on campus. “We are still following their diet needs, but scaled back calories because the athletes can’t work out as much,” says Knutson. Outdoor areas are still available for workouts, and six employees a day operate dining services; the training center is able to pay all employees for the hours they normally put in.

The biggest challenge was redirecting all those shipping containers ready to go to Tokyo. Knutson mobilized team members to separate out products that could be stored and eventually used at USOPC headquarters in Colorado Springs. “We then donated 3,300 cases of shelf-stable products to the local food bank, Care and Share of the Rockies,” he says. “It took two semis to pick up all the food.”

Aside from the food, “we were working on remodeling our dining facility at the Team USA center of the Tokyo sports park,” says Knutson, “and our chefs were already lining up vendors and coordinating menus with Japanese chefs in the host country.”

Now Knutson is “hitting the reset button” in preparation for the 2021 Summer Olympics. The athletes start coming back to Colorado Springs for training about seven months prior to the July games, and vendors, menus and logistics are put in place before that.

Six months later, the 2022 Winter Olympics are scheduled to begin in Beijing—a challenge that will mean another speedy turnaround for Knutson and his team.




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