RIO DE JANEIRO — The afternoon was blustery, cold and drizzling, and the Samoan freestyle swimmer Brandon Schuster was outside in shorts and flip-flops, looking rather anxious because there were still 53 people in front of him to reach the door of the Olympic Village’s most popular restaurant.
“We’re so pathetic,” he said. “It’s raining, and we’re waiting in line for McDonald’s.”
You might assume that the world’s most finely tuned athletes would be eating something healthy — egg-white omelets, kale salads — as they strive to reach the pinnacle of their sporting lives. And you would be wrong.
The one constant in the Olympic Village, the collection of high-rise apartment towers where some 10,000 athletes, coaches and staff live during the Games, is that there will be a line out the door of the McDonald’s. Morning and night, in blazing sun or stiff wind, come stray bullet or whiff of sewage, the Olympians will be waiting for their fries.
“People were literally playing beach volleyball around the line,” said Jessica Javelet, a 31-year-old American rugby player.
Part of the issue here is that there are not a ton of alternatives. The village has a cafeteria in a big tent — plus a “casual dining” restaurant with Brazilian food — but the reviews have been well short of glowing. The crush of people in the cafeteria, trying to figure out in a babel of languages what is being served, can make for a frenzied meal.
“If you go at peak times, it’s maybe one of the craziest experiences I’ve ever had,” Javelet said.
Since no other fast-food chains have a presence here, McDonald’s is the only game in town. The line has allegedly stretched farther than a football field.
“Normally, in the cafeteria, the food isn’t good,” said Idaliz Ortiz, a 26-year-old judoka from Cuba, picking fries out of her bag. “In practically all the arenas, it’s the same. So the whole world always comes here for American food. That’s McDonald’s.”
It also happens to be free, at least for athletes and coaches. The orders can get prodigious. You see weightlifters grasping multiple bags in each mitt and pixie gymnasts balancing armfuls of cardboard soda holders. Israelis line up with Iranians. Mongolians mix with Bahamians. Australian basketball player Andrew Bogut, who plays in the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks, reportedly ate at the village McDonald’s.
“The Chinese basketball team, they come all day, every day,” said one McDonald’s employee, who was not allowed to give his name. “The Chinese eat Big Macs at 9 a.m. It’s crazy.”
So many people have been coming to McDonald’s that the restaurant decided this week to limit to 20 the number of items that one person could order.
An athlete can ask for more, but then the order drops in priority, adding extra minutes to the already hefty wait.
While in line, Schuster, 18, and his fellow Samoan swimmer Evelina Afoa, 17, were debating whether to order 10 or 12 Big Macs, knowing that whatever they picked up would be shared with others. The day they finished their competition, they went straight to McDonald’s.
“The last time we came, the girl was just looking at us like, ‘Whoa.’ But then we were like, ‘We’re ordering for other people as well,’ ” Afoa said.
“They should have two McDonald’s,” Schuster said.
The weightlifting coach from the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, Jimmy Monien, allowed his two weightlifters one visit to McDonald’s before they competed and unlimited visits afterward.
“Athletes are not expected to eat this,” he acknowledged, sitting at a picnic table while picking at a McDonald’s salad and fries. “But as long as they stay in their weight category, it’s fine for me.”
Some athletes have always flouted the tenets of healthy living. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte ate nearly every meal at McDonald’s and won four medals. But many others pay strict attention to nutrition, avoiding processed foods and sugar. U.S. wrestler Jordan Burroughs, 28, usually has fresh juice or a salad for lunch when he is preparing for an event, he told NBC News. Gymnast Aly Raisman, 22, has said that during training, she typically eats chicken or fish, small amounts of brown rice or whole-wheat pasta and lots of veggies.
Monien expected some athletes would avoid fast food, particularly before competition. “Believe me, before the competition, I don’t think Usain Bolt will come here to eat McDonald’s,” he said.
History would dispute this. The Jamaican sprinter reportedly ate 100 chicken nuggets a day during the Beijing Olympics. Four years later, before he won gold in the 100-meter sprint in London, he admitted to having “a few nuggets.”
In past Games, the media center also had a McDonald’s to feed the hordes of scribes, but organizers scrapped it this year for economic reasons. The cafeteria available to journalists has a forward operating base aesthetic, with less culinary variety.
The McDonald’s is located in the plaza area of the village — sort of a town square — adjacent to the row of apartment towers where the athletes live. This plaza has been gussied up with bits of Brazilian flair: There is a “beach” area with carted-in sand, some artificial grass, a few photo backdrops of a Rio beach and Sugarloaf Mountain. But it still feels a lot like a parking lot.
Around the perimeter, there is a florist, a bank, a post office, a souvenir shop and a replica of the typical athlete’s room — two single beds, with Olympic-themed duvet covers, some flimsy-looking furniture, two beanbag chairs. And, of course, the McDonald’s.
Since it is technically a McCafe, the menu here is pared down to the staples: Big Macs or Quarter Pounders, with some Brazilian twists: little balls of cheese bread (pão de queijo) and, oddly, cherry tomatoes (tomatinhos). The familiar “bacon, egg and cheese” gets inverted into the “egg cheese bacon.”
“I got a chicken sandwich,” Javelet said as she sat in the sun. “So, you know, it was healthy.”