As world-class athletes gathered to compete in the London 2012 Olympics, Jamie Oliver joined health professionals to take aim at celebrity athletes who promote sugar and fat-loaded foods. Their letter, published in the July 25th Times, was blunt:
We believe it is wrong for athletes to encourage the excessive consumption of such items, which are fuelling poor health and obesity. David Beckham is a great sportsman, yet he has endorsed Pepsi. What about the impact of Gary Lineker’s association with Walkers crisps? Or the partnership between Mars and the FA?
The letter was signed by Dr Aseem Malhotra (Cardiologist); Dr Hilary Cass (President, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health); Professor Terence Stephenson (Past President); Steve Iredale (President, National Association of Head Teachers); Charlie Powell (Director, Children’s Food Campaign); and Jamie Oliver. They accused the junk food industry of triggering the “halo” effect by linking their unhealthy offerings with celebrity athletes.
Olympics and Junk Food
A lot of sports celebrities will make appearances at the Olympics, people like David Beckham and Gary Lineker. Their endorsements of various products will tag along with them.
The Premiere Athlete & Celebrity site gives a glimpse into the money paid to famous people for their appearances, endorsements, and speaking engagements. If you want Mario Andretti, expect to pay between $30,000 and $50,000. You can hire Dorothy Hamill for half that. Don’t expect Hank Aaron for under $50,001. Most don’t list their fees.
The money is seductive for both parties. Athletes and other celebrities fatten their bank accounts. Companies benefit from the “halo” effect and make shareholders happy with increased profits. When it comes to the Olympics, sponsors stand to gain a great deal by their connection with major sports figures and with events that capture the eye of the world.
Next: Studies Link Diet and Disease
Studies Link Diet and Disease
Before the letter appeared in The Times, UK doctors had already taken the Olympics committee to task for allowing McDonald’s and Coke to sponsor the games. Their concerns were legitimate. Diet-related diseases are taking a heavy toll around the world, and a major contributor is the fast-food industry.
Just this week two more studies linked the effects of a nutritionally poor diet with serious health impacts. The first, based on data from the Dutch Paediatric Surveillance Unit, showed that two out of three severely obese children have heart disease risk factors, some as young as age two. In the second, Tel Aviv University researchers found a connection between childhood obesity and later development of colon or bladder cancer.
Before the era of highly processed foods, childhood obesity and its impacts were rare. Now, given the skyrocketing number of obese children, health systems will be hard pressed to survive the future burden of diet-related diseases.
Big Food and Health Are a Bad Fit
The marriage of the fast-food industry and sports events unites two incompatible interests, in spite of claims they can work together. At the top of the food industry’s priorities is profit, even if that profit is gained through products that undermine health. At the top of sports events’ priorities is, or should be, the health of participants and the role models they can be for young athletes.
No matter how they spin it, the fast-food and beverage industries are a questionable fit for the Olympics and athletics in general. In spite of their efforts to brand themselves as promoting health when they sponsor sports celebrities and Olympics, they make the lion’s share of their profits selling products that are poor nutritional choices.
At some point, governments and consumers will have to decide whether they can continue to endorse and even subsidize industries whose interests run counter to public benefit. The Olympics are a good place to engage in that conversation.
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