Why the Big Fuss Over Food at Beijing's Concession Stands?

09/20/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

During my most recent visit to watch baseball at Boston's Fenway Park, I consumed a chili cheese dog, a sleeve of fries, buttery popcorn and a beer -- actually, more than one. At Beijing's Wukesong Basketball Stadium today I settled for a Coke Zero and yogurt.

I'd like to say I voluntarily chose calcium over cholesterol, but that would be a lie. The concession stands at Beijing's sporting venues and Olympic Green sell only pre-packaged snacks like caramel corn, yogurt, crackers, bread, biscuits, sausage on a stick, milk and ice cream cones; typical American stadium fare like chicken fingers and greasy Italian sausages are nowhere to be found.

For drinks there's the obligatory Tsingdao beer alongside soda and water, but the Chinese fans I stand behind in line prefer crackers and bottled green tea.

Although recent news reports and blogs are framing this as a failure on BOCOG's part ("Glad This Isn't the "Eat Beat" and Sky Canaves and Geoffrey A. Fowler's "Olympics Pose an Endurance Test for Hungry Spectators") I think that (a) those who have lived in China know these snacks reflect local tastes and (b) what's wrong with eating healthier at sporting events?

Western visitors might say sparse, but the snacks are undeniably Chinese and part of any prolonged experience in China. They remind me of long-distance train rides during which Chinese travelers consume sunflower seeds, rice chips, slice bread and processed sausages by the bag.

Canaves and Fowler acknowledge the cultural component: "At the heart of Beijing's food issues are cultural differences in eating styles between Chinese and Westerners. Chinese generally eat their meals early and at a table, and many would find it unthinkable to eat an informal meal on the go or at a sporting event."

Regarding beer, we're actually fortunate to have it. That wasn't the case in 2007 when I watched The Roots perform to a dry crowd in Shanghai. Beer was neither sold nor allowed on the premises. (My friends and I unsuccessfully tried to smuggle drinks past security.)

In addition to selection, bloggers and writers are complaining of long lines, too. It's true that at the National Stadium I once waited 30 minutes for food, but the customers who took longest were the non-Chinese spectators ordering beer by the boxful. To be fair the wait was partly due to service inefficiencies--rather than pouring drafts, the staff painstakingly poured individual cans into plastic cups (cans can be weapons I presume?). To pack big orders in boxes, the staff topped each cup with a plastic lid.

Meals for Olympic personnel, however, are also raising eyebrows. At dining halls for volunteers, selections are hit or miss and sometimes delightfully puzzling. At Wukesong Basketball Stadium, the Chinese volunteers eat greasy stir-fried dishes from flimsy plastic containers. The foreign volunteers opted for two slices of soggy microwavable pizza instead. I'm not sure which is better.

At the International Broadcast Center, meals for volunteers are a step up: an all-you-can-eat at a buffet line run by overseas chefs. The combinations reflect the diners' multi-cultural make up. Breakfast, for example, is Chinese zhou (rice porridge), lo mein, scrambled eggs with cheese, home fried turnips, and, oddly for 7 am, a Snickers bar. IBC broadcasting staff receives a nice selection of pizza, paninis, spaghetti and fresh sandwiches at their first floor dining hall, which is the most convivial part of the building and attracts diners around the clock. Food never runs out, unlike reports coming from concession stands, and the cafeteria serves complimentary coffee and cookies twice a day.

But other personnel -- especially foreign media working at sports venues--aren't so lucky and report being just plain hungry. Kevin Fylan recounts the following stories in his blog:

One Reuters colleague told us he'd lined up with punters for half an hour in the scorching heat for a hotdog at the tennis venue, only to be told when he reached the counter that they didn't actually have hotdogs, or indeed anything else apart from crisps...Another of our reporters has resorted to scavenging through the bins and yesterday she proudly informed fellow sufferers that she'd dug out a half-nibbled sandwich and half a tub of yoghurt, which she promptly wolfed down.

The fact that you aren't allowed to bring outside food into any Olympic venues exacerbates the problem, though I have snuck in granola bars and candy. But then again, I say that when in China you should do like the Chinese. And it might do our waists well, too.