Should the Olympics Promote Junk Food?

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.


Related Care2 Stories

Strapped for Cash, Cities Consider Corporate Sponsorship

BP Hailed as “Sustainability Partner” in London Olympics

Corporations Funding Climate Change Denial

Advertising Bans Work: Quebec Has Lowest Childhood Obesity Rate

ParticipACTION Sells Out to Coke


Photo credits: Thinkstock

Love This? Never Miss Another Story.


Duane B.
.3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Elena T.
Elena Poensgen3 years ago

Thank you

Jane R.
Jane R.3 years ago

The Olympics need sponsors to help with expenses. If you don't like junk food or cokes that's your right. Having them as a sponsor does not mean that the atheletes eat or drink thier products but money has to come from somewhere. These large companies have the funds, so why shouldn't they contribute? It's still your own decision to use them or not. How else will the Olympics be funded? Will you give money to support them? I doubt it, so let them get money wherever they can or there might not be anothe Olympics. Without funding they can't go on.

Michelle Spradley

The reason McDonald's and Coca Cola have the money to sponsor the Olympics is because the consumers have overflowed their bank accounts. If everyone who has been complaining had spent their fastfood dollars at some internationally renowned health food restaurant, then perhaps the IOC would have had a healthier choice for their sponsor.

Magda F.
Magda F.3 years ago

it's all about money

Donna F.
Donna F.3 years ago

I was surprised to see McDonald's and Coke were major sponsors of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Such a contradiction. If our athletes consume too much of this junk food, they wouldn't be Olympians.

wchi wink
.3 years ago

sorry, but it just doesn't fit!
Atheletics and junk food?
(if i was an athlete, i wouldn't want to be associated with McDo or Coke...)

Valentina R.
Valentina R.3 years ago

Anything for money. Stop treating the olympics like flawless events, they're not.

Sheri P.
Sheri P.3 years ago

it's unbelievably ridiculous!! i was in shock when i read that chips (fries) would not be allowed to be sold in london during the olympics...except at mctoilets. it was at that point that i realized that mctoilets must be a sponsor of the olympics. what a disgrace! those athletes sure don't get where they are by drinking coca cola and eating at mctoilets...

Allan Yorkowitz
.3 years ago

Years ago, when a star athlete won a gold medal, he/she appeared on a Wheaties cereal box. This was the height of exposure. You were advertising a whole gain, nutritious cereal. Today, a gold medal winner becomes a flash celebrity, and their newly found agents, squeeze all they can out of them.
Except of course if your Bruce Jenner......I'd take his medal away for being an embarrassment to the nation.