You wouldn’t think that the world’s largest athletic event, which features the most carefully sculpted, toned and trained contestants on earth, would send any kind of mixed message about health. The Games serve as a reminder that the human body, rigorously trained and properly nourished, can accomplish extraordinary things.
Maybe that’s why it seems a little incongruous that some of the largest sponsors of the Olympic Games are McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Cadbury — companies famous for hawking empty-calorie-laden food and drink.
Based on exclusive contracts negotiated with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the only brand-name fries you can buy in the Olympic Park are from McDonald’s and the only non-alcoholic cold drinks you can quench your thirst with are Coca-Cola products. The Olympic Park also holds the world’s largest McDonald’s restaurant, with seating for a whopping 1,500 customers. For these companies, exclusive sponsorship deals with the Olympics, an event attended and viewed by millions across the globe, are promotional gold.
But some critics aren’t loving that purveyors of fast-food, chocolate and soft drinks are brand-building at the world’s premier athletic event. The Academy of Royal Medical Colleges recently issued a statement that at a worldwide celebration of top athletic achievement, coveted sponsorship spots shouldn’t go to companies that contribute to unhealthy diets and obesity. Even IOC President Jacques Rogge has appeared to question the suitability of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola as Olympic sponsors.
This is hardly the first time we’ve seen unhealthy food pushed at sporting events. Anyone who’s attended a college game of any kind can attest that athletics are an easy and age-old arena for junk food sales and promotion. Just look at the corporate sponsors of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA): two of the 12 are Coca-Cola and Hershey’s, connecting the companies to 100 million collegiate fans and alumni in all 50 states.
Coca-Cola also negotiates exclusive contracts with some individual colleges and universities — deals that offer major exposure not only in dining halls and vending machines, but also to students, athletes and fans at every school sports event.
Both in college athletics and in the Olympic Games, exclusive contracts of this nature bring up a few tricky value questions. The NCAA, university athletic programs and the International Olympic Association clearly prioritize health and well-being. So is it right to allow junk food companies to promote themselves alongside the most prestigious student and professional athletes?
Now more and more people are calling for the International Olympic Association to rethink its corporate sponsorship in the future. That’s a potentially daunting task, given the huge sums that corporations like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Cadbury are able to dole out for their prime sponsorship status.
While debate over Olympic sponsorship continues, Michelle Obama is using the Games as part of her anti-obesity campaign. Capitalizing on the Olympic hype, the first lady wrote an editorial this week encouraging families to get inspired by American Olympians and start taking an interest in exercise and healthy diets.
For now, in an odd sort of Olympic contest, the first lady’s healthy living message may still have to compete for attention with not-so-nutritious corporate sponsors of the Games.
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