It “was not an easy decision,” confessed Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), of signing on McDonald’s and Coca-Cola as major sponsors of the Olympic Games through 2020. But he was forced to set aside his reservations in light of financial realities.
Such sponsors — 11 in all — provided $957 million in revenue in the four years leading up to the London Olympics. “We decided to go and to have the benefit of their support at grassroots levels,” he told the Financial Times. “The bottom line is that we have to support and to alleviate the needs of… our National Olympic committees [and] international federations. Most international federations are on a lifeline for the Olympic Games and they need the financial support.” But are McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Cadbury’s really the best that the IOC can do?
The editors of The Lancet argue that the “Games should encourage physical activity, promote healthy living, and inspire the next generation to exercise.” The IOC has a responsibility to its brand like any other company or organization, and it makes no sense for junk food and sugared-up sodas, hardly the optimal fuel for body or brain, to be associated with world-class athletic achievement. (Isn’t this, after all, why people were in an uproar after photos of a marijuana-smoking Michael Phelps emerged?) It makes no sense, and yet the power of marketing can make it happen, which is why McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are each paying up to $100 million for access to this market. It allows them to brighten their image while expanding their brand.
Writing for CNN.com, Malcolm Clark notes how “the sponsors try to sugar-coat their Olympic involvement with ever-grander sports and exercise schemes that they claim will make children more active.” The companies, however, “cannot disguise one salient fact: no amount of free equipment and sporting initiatives will make unhealthy diets any less unhealthy. This is what makes McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Cadbury’s such unsuitable Olympic sponsors.”
They’re so unsuitable also because many people, including children, really will begin to believe that these companies’ products aren’t so bad for them after all. Consider the fact, for example, that the promotional use of the Olympic mascots Wenlock and Mandeville, designed for the five-to-fifteen-year-old demographic, is restricted to the sponsors. Get them hooked early and you’ll have them for life. As the editors of The Lancet write, it will be hard to erase “the long-term effect of Games-associated junk food advertising on people’s hearts and waistlines — definitely one Olympic legacy the world can do without.”
Alas, as the Financial Times reports, IOC president Rogge said that “the growing financial demands of the Olympics were making it harder for the movement to hold on to its long-cherished values, which include taking care of one’s health.” In other words, the Olympics can no longer be counted on to stand for the very values that have defined it up until now. After health, what next?
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