Juggling Act: Rio Olympics recalls memories of Atlanta

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

We’ve seen their determination, strength and power. But when it comes to getting a free Big Mac, Olympians love a tasty freebie just like the rest of us.

I’ve seen it. Nearly 20 years ago to the day, I worked in the main dining hall at Olympic Village during the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta, which I’ve been reminded of as I watch this year’s games unfold in Rio de Janeiro.

Call it destiny or good luck, a friend had a brother who worked for Aramark, the food service provider at the ’96 Olympics. They were looking for college students to work in the main dining hall. I was one of thousands hired to serve food in Atlanta. My job: serve up cafeteria-style food to the best athletes from across the world.

I’ve always been a huge fan of the Olympics, but to see athletes up close and personal was something else entirely. I marveled at the tiny gymnasts from China and the bulky wrestlers from Russia.

Surprisingly, hot dogs were hugely popular in 1996. We served up more hot dogs – without buns – than any other food. And while most of the big name athletes didn’t eat in the main dining hall, a few did. Dishing up dinner for tennis star Monica Seles, it took all the self-control I had to not set down my serving spoon and ask for an autograph.

I never saw an Olympic medal up close during my time in Atlanta, but I saw something else that was golden: McDonald’s golden arches. McDonald’s, a longtime Olympic sponsor, had set up shop in one corner of the main dining hall so athletes could get their fix of McNuggets, fries or Quarter Pounders at any meal.

McDonald’s bridged cultural divides in a way I’ve never seen before. It brought together athletes from different sports, ethnicities and cultures. It was a reminder that we’re all more alike than we are different. And it made these superhumans seem so much more real.

Twenty years after my own Olympic experience, watching every twist and turn in Rio, I can appreciate that realness even more and the sacrifices so many athletes make just to get to the Olympics. For every Michael Phelps or Simone Biles, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of athletes like Luiza Gega.

Gega of Albania carried her country’s flag during last week’s Opening Ceremony. She is a track and field athlete, but Gega doesn’t train at a world-class track or have lucrative endorsements. She trains in a city park, running along other joggers and walkers. She’ll compete in this weekend’s 3,000 meter steeplechase.

And like Gega, I’m sure most people outside of cycling have never heard of American Mara Abbott. I’d never heard of Abbott until I watched last Sunday’s nail-biting women’s road race. Abbott was on the verge of winning a gold medal until she was passed just yards from the finish line; she placed fourth.

Abbott is an example of what it takes for so many to compete at the Olympics level. She works at a Colorado farmers market in the off-season to help pay bills.

All told, more than 10,000 athletes – 500 from the United States alone – will compete in Rio, most staying in 31 apartment towers at Rio’s athletes village. There, the next generation of hot line servers is probably dishing up dinner to the world’s most elite athletes, like I once did in Atlanta, marveling at these superhuman athletes doing extraordinary things but realizing that they also love hots dogs just like me and you. And yes, there is even a McDonald’s there.

mfeighan@detroitnews.com