The British Olympic Association is warning its athletes to stick to their team approved catering facilities when they visit Beijing for the games this summer and it has nothing to do with the (largely incorrect) notion that the Brits are unadventurous eaters. Instead it is a reaction to one of China’s premiere swimmers Ouyang Kunpeng’s failed random drug test which was possibly the result of eating tainted pork. Chinese Olympic officials admitted that Kunpeg tested positive for Clenbuterol, a substance banned by the International Olympic Committee.
The drug is a non-anabolic steroid that is not approved by the FDA for use in the United States, but is used in some countries to treat breathing disorders and more often is used as a weight loss aid. But it is unlikely the swimmer was seeking a competitive advantage, more likely he was just seeking a good meal. Clenbuterol is prevalent on Chinese pig farms, where the animals are fed the steroid in hopes of keeping their meat lean.
In September 2006 there was a rash of food poisoning cases in Shanghai when more than 330 became ill after eating pork treated with the steroid. There have been unconfirmed reports of local outbreaks in the U.S., which lead to legislation allowing use of the steroid only on horses in an effort to ensure it stays out of the food chain.
This is an embarrassing incident for China, already under intense scrutiny over perceived human rights violations, as they get set to host the Olympic games later this summer. Athletes are being urged to take a “common sense approach” to their diet during the games, being directed to drink only bottled water, shun ice, and eat only vegetables that can be peeled.
Unfortunately many foreign visitors heeding this sensible sounding advice are going to miss out on some of the amazing cuisine which is an integral part of China’s rich culture. As any seasoned traveler knows, food is one of the most visceral and enjoyable ways to immerse yourself in a culture. Eating like the locals eat is often less expensive and is almost always more gratifying. Discovering native ingredients and flavors can be a life changing experience, and indeed some of the world’s greatest chefs have had their palates shaped by the dishes they’ve sampled abroad. Truly, it is a shame to be confined to glorified cafeteria food while in a country with culinary tradition as rich as China’s. It seems the only international flavors many Olympic participants will get to experience will be on the playing field.