Image: Confectioner's shop in Turin
Daniele La Monaca  /  Reuters
Trays of chocolates adorn a confectioner's shop in Turin. Even by the standards of food-obsessed Italy, the Piedmont region stands out for its pride in its local dishes, cheeses and wines.
updated 2/13/2006 7:38:21 PM ET 2006-02-14T00:38:21

After four courses and as many wines in the home of the slow food movement, up came a plate of unctuous, sweet panna cotta.

Visitors faced with such a dessert, which translates as "cooked cream," should heed the words of Manuela Di Centa, a multiple gold medalist in cross-country skiing and mayor of the Olympic village: "With measure," she says with a finger pointed upward when discussing food in the Piedmont region of Italy. "Remember — with measure."

Hundreds of athletes conditioned to the last gram to be at their physical peak are converging on this region famous for the good things in life — rich cheeses, even richer Barolo wines and, and such sweet desserts as snowy-white panna cotta.

The thought alone brought Di Centa back to the days when a few hundred grams on a slim waistline could still make the difference between gold and silver.

"I remember one time when I said, 'OK, I have to lose half a kilo more.'" She pushed herself over the trails of northern Italy while craving that special piece of cake. It was too much to resist — so she increased her training regimen and the distances to soothe that sweet tooth.

At the end of the day, "I had to say to myself, Manuela, you've done a great job because you skied well, it was cold and your technique was perfect. So now you can eat a piece of cake, it doesn't matter how many calories, how much fat.

"But you deserve it — and I ate it."

It didn't hurt. In her long career, she won two cross-country Olympic gold medals and seven overall.

Teams know that healthy athletes in their 20s will not always have the discipline to eat exactly what they need and often overindulge on fats and sugar.

To Norway's ice skating coach Peter Mueller, it's not a problem.

"They basically eat what they want," the American said of his athletes.

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"I'd rather be spending my time training than spending three or four hours a day listening to some nutritionist," he said. Shaking his head, he famously remembers that, as a coach for the Dutch team, he had to explain how many potatoes each of his skaters ate a day.

"You can drink milk and go to bed at 6 p.m., but if you're not fit you are not going to skate fast," he said. "If you are fit and in form you can have a couple of beers and go to bed at 1 a.m."

Keeping check on potatoes, that staple of the Russian diet, was important to speedskater Svetlana Zhurova though.

After motherhood, she had ballooned to 180 pounds, almost 40 pounds off her competition weight. With only six months to get back in shape for the Olympics, a special diet was in order.

"I didn't eat after six and I didn't eat potatoes," she said. It worked. Last month, she surprised everyone, winning the world sprint championship in the Netherlands and moving toward Turin as a gold medal favorite.

The Dutch have been working on food technology for years and even have produced their own recovery drink. "An improvement in results is linked to an improvement in eating behavior," said the team's medical expert Tjeerd de Vries.

It can be disheartening. When asked how long a distance skater had to manage his diet for the winning results in Turin, he just said, "years, really."

‘Look and don't touch’
Marrying the great food of Piedmont and athletic performance left Turin organizing chief Valentino Castellani in a bind. He even suggested "look and don't touch" as an option.

"My wife is a good cook and she says to me the eyes want their part. What you see must be exciting and inviting," Castellani said.

At the L'Osteria del Boccondivino in Bra, a village some 20 miles from Turin, just looking is no option, not with a procession of braised rabbit and Barbera and Barbaresco wines. It is where the slow food movement was born and its reliance on the gentle pace of seasons and natural products stands in contrast to the speed of the Olympics and the vitamin supplements athletes thrive on.

Its symbol is a snail.

Image: Japanese athlete waiting at McDonald's
Go Chai Hin  /  AFP - Getty Images
An unidentified Japanese athlete waits in front of the McDonald's counter at the Olympic village on Feb. 7.
Not surprisingly, slow food is not part of the Olympic village, even though its gastronomic nemesis McDonald's is.

The American fast-food chain, however, already earned its Olympic laurels in Athens. Australian Ryan Bayley won cycling gold two years ago boosted by a lunch of "Macca's," Australian slang for McDonald's.

"Most people do their own thing and eat the right things. I just eat whatever I want," he said.

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