Eating History: At The 1936 Berlin Olympics, Food For Thought
Image Credit: Dhyan Chand (right) in the 1936 Berlin Olympics semi-finals match against France. Wikimedia Commons

IN the summer of 1936, Germany’s sprawling capital, Berlin, witnessed an extraordinary event unfold – the Olympics, the pinnacle of sportsmanship and camaraderie among nations. This particular year though, the game extended beyond being a global sports competition; instead it served as a demonstration of Nazi propaganda.

For Indians though, the 1936 Olympics marked a defining moment in our nation’s history of field hockey. Indian hockey whiz Dhyan Chand led the men’s national field hockey team to dizzying glory with a resounding 8-1 scoreline against Germany. Along with his team, Dhyan Chand’s historic clinching of the gold medal against Germany made him go down in the annals of history as a national hero. 

Back in the day, being a world-class hockey player was commendable, but ensuring adequate funding for the team was an entirely different ballgame altogether. With little financial support available in the sport and the government showing little interest in funding major events like the Olympics, the Indian Hockey Federation took it upon themselves to seek donations from various sources — from royalty to ordinary citizens.

The preparations for the 1936 Berlin Olympics were no exception, requiring a substantial sum of around Rs 50,000 to cover the team's travel and other expenses. Contributions poured in from distinguished figures, including Maharajas and industrialists, as well as various hockey associations across India. Dhyan Chand himself recounted the financial troubles the team had to encounter in terms of funds. In his autobiography titled Goal, published in 1952 by Chennai’s weekly sports magazine Sport & Pastime, Dhyan Chand recalled that on their way from Paris to Berlin, the Indian team travelled in third-class compartments. They couldn’t afford to indulge in a full breakfast in the train's restaurant car, and settled for more meagre fare. 


In contrast, Hitler was more than willing to pump funds into the event, so as to impress numerous international onlookers and reporters with a façade of a serene and inclusive Germany. So, the Adolf Hitler-led government constructed Olympiches Dorf, the first permanent Olympic village, which Hitler himself dubbed ‘The Village of Peace'.

Scenes from the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Wikimedia Commons

The elliptical Speisehaus der Nationen, or “the dining room of the nations”, perfectly lived up to its name by providing 40 distinct dining rooms for the various countries’ contingents to enjoy their meals. 

The ground floor featured two spacious dining rooms, each capable of seating 150 people, while the upper floors housed smaller dining spaces. Consequently, larger countries had to dine in separate groups, whereas smaller countries were combined in specific halls. 

Previous games had demonstrated that each country had its dietary preferences, and to accommodate this, the venue enlisted the expertise of 200 chefs from the shipping company Norddeutschen Lloyd (NDL) who skillfully prepared dishes tailored to each country's culinary traditions. The service staff comprised 300 stewards who efficiently attended to the guests. drawing on their extensive experience in managing mixed staff and passengers on their ships.  

Some teams opted to bring their own cooks.

During meals, alcohol was not freely served except for the teams from Belgium, France, Italy, and the Netherlands, as it aligned with their food culture. Athletes from other countries were not offered alcoholic beverages during their meals. However, beer and wine were available in the restaurant situated in the reception building for all athletes.

Further, even the basic food menu provided a variety of options to cater to the diverse tastes and dietary preferences of the competitors, ensuring they were fuelled and ready for their rigorous sporting events.

Starting their day with breakfast, athletes had an array of choices from fresh fruits, a bowl of cereals, oatmeal porridge or rice served with milk. A selection of hot beverages such as coffee, tea, milk, and cocoa were at their disposal. For those in need of protein, eggs were prepared according to their preferences.

The lunch meal typically began with a nourishing soup or bouillon, providing essential fluids and nutrients after a morning of training and competing. The main course consisted of various meats, fresh vegetables and potatoes. To conclude the meal on a sweet note, athletes had the choice between seasonal fruits and cheese.

Dinner at the Olympic Village was no less appetising. The evening meal began with either cold or warm bouillon, proceeding with a selection of fish, steak, and cold cuts to choose from. A fresh serving of fruit followed, along with tea or cold/warm milk.

As a special treat, fowl was served twice a week.  


Modern experts argue that some of the nutritional standards prevalent during the early Olympic games, as evinced in 1936, don't appear practical in the contemporary context. 

View of the Olympic Village. Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, alcohol was initially banned from the Olympic Village, to promote a sober and focused environment. However, special permissions were granted to certain countries based on their cultural traditions. As noted earlier, French and Italian athletes were allowed to enjoy wine with their meals, while the Dutch and Belgian squads were permitted to have beer during their time at the Olympic Village.

Each nation had its unique dietary preferences and special requests, and the organisers made every effort to accommodate these needs. For instance, the Indian team had specific dietary restrictions that disallowed beef and pork but included curry and various meats like mutton, veal, lamb, and fowl. 

On the other hand, the Argentinean and Australian athletes preferred three meat-based dishes daily, particularly beef, mutton, and veal, in generous portions. The Austrian team requested Biomalt, a malt-based health drink, and Finland sought ample quantities of milk. The French team opted for hors d'oeuvres instead of soup or broth at lunch. The German contingent had specific preferences, including tomato juice, cream cheese with linseed oil, and various health supplements like Ovaltine, Dextropur and Dextroenergen.

The Greek contingent preferred to have cold or warm Ovaltine at all mealtimes, while the Dutch team wanted warm meals only in the evening and plenty of vegetables, potatoes, fresh salads and Dutch cheese. 

The Polish team, like Greece, favoured cold or warm Ovaltine for breakfast and dinner, while Switzerland opted to have Ovaltine served at every meal. The US also had a preference for Ovaltine and Dextroenergen. 

Individual athletes also made specific food requests, and special preparations were provided upon the approval of their team leaders or physicians. These preparations often included nutritional supplements like Ovaltine, Dextropur, Dextroenergen, and Biomalt, ensuring that the athletes had the necessary fuel and energy for their events.

With time, our knowledge of sports nutrition has advanced dramatically. Hence, one can chart a steady increase in the number of refreshment stations in the Olympics over the years. While in its inaugural year (1904), there was only one drinking station, by 1908, there were four, seven in 1948, and now modern marathons at the Games have no fewer than 16 spots to hydrate and refuel.