Watching the closing ceremony of the 2022 Games the other night with Ozzy Osbourne, UB40 and Dexys Midnight Runners, brought back fond and vivid memories of when I worked at the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games exactly 36 years ago!
Literally two days after graduating from Napier University, I joined students and lecturers from the Napier University Hospitality Department in providing the catering operations in the Food Hall of the Athlete’s Village at the 1986 Commonwealth Games. We drew the short straw – the 6am – 2pm shift! We fed and watered breakfast and lunch to the 1,660 competitors who were based in Pollock Halls and other nearby accommodation, the volunteers and the emergency, security and transport services.
My work placement at university encompassed contract catering and five star hotels, followed by a holiday season in a restaurant on a campsite in France. Weekends during term time involved banqueting shifts at The Caledonian and Grosvenor Hotels which were an extension of my social life with my fellow students. I felt I already had quite a lot of experience in the industry, but working on an event of this magnitude was an opportunity too good to miss – and it certainly turned out to be just that!
The village mobilised a couple of weeks before the games opened, and we spent the first week gearing up, setting up systems and customer journeys while learning about global foods, portion control, customer service, and getting to grips with the politics between front of house and the kitchen.
The sheer scale of daily food, beverage and disposable orders arriving was impossible to comprehend, the top commodities being bacon, 20 litre drums of oil, chicken breasts, haddock, butter, and a daily plantation of bananas!
The range available for breakfast and lunch blew me away, with menu choices from all over the world. Onion bhajis and pakoras, pasta, eggs, rice, grilled meats, bread, yoghurt, exotic fruits and vegetables, cereal and traditional breakfast disappeared at a rate of knots from 6.30am. Our Food Hall team were paired at food stations - we were friendly faces for the athletes, standing straight (no leaning!) throughout our shift, and keeping the counters topped up by alerting the Operations Manager every time we replaced a tray from the hot cupboard below. I can’t remember her name, but I do remember she was super organised, had a great rapport with the kitchen, and worked hard to make a team out of us and make it really fun. We were instructed to control portion sizes, but found we were fighting a losing battle with the gigantic weightlifters in the war of two link sausages versus six!
To pass the time we tried to guess who played what sport by what they looked like and what they ate! I became pretty good at it.
Highlights of the event were the day that Prince Charles and Princess Diana toured the food hall, and the whole place was awash with police and sniffer dogs who were going berserk with the smell of the sausages! Also spotting famous athletes like Daley Thomson, Steve Cram, Tessa Sanderson, Liz McColgan, Steve Redgrave, Adrian Moorhouse and Yvonne Murray as they came in to eat their meal and relax with their fellow athletes.
Controversially, 32 countries boycotted the games due to Margaret Thatcher’s government’s policy of maintaining sporting links with apartheid South Africa, and the huge reduction in numbers at short notice caused a logistical headache to say the least. The City of Edinburgh was out of pocket by £500,000 due to funding issues.
Watching the Birmingham games these past few days has brought it all these memories flooding back. It also reminded me why I chose to work in hospitality in the first place.