What do fat-filled hamburgers, greasy French fries and excessively sugary beverages have to do with an international event the showcases athletic achievement and dedication to physical activity?
That is the question being posed by a consortium of health advocates who say it’s time for the Olympics to be held to account for its close ties to companies that market unhealthy products.
Their criticisms are aimed squarely at athletes who take sponsorship money from McDonald’s, including star figure skater Patrick Chan and hockey player Drew Doughty.
“For decades, McDonald’s has capitalized on the individual success of Olympians to deflect criticism around the health impacts of its products and build brand loyalty with kids,” said Sara Deon, a campaign director at Corporate Accountability International, in a statement. “These sponsorships are not only misleading but helping to drive an epidemic of diet-related disease.”
Corporate Accountability International issued an open letter to Olympic athletes this week urging them to take a stand and refuse to be associated with the McDonald’s brand. The letter was also signed by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Small Planet Institute, all U.S.-based advocacy groups.
McDonald’s is a long-time major sponsor of the Olympics and provides funding to Canadian athletes. The company is the official restaurant sponsor of the 2014 Olympic games.
Critics have also pointed to inherent problems with Coca-Cola, a leading marketer of sugar-sweetened beverages worldwide, being the exclusive non-alcoholic beverage supplier to the Olympics. It has been a major Olympic sponsor since 1928.
“I think that brands like McDonald’s and Coke are rightly under attack for promoting unhealthy food that really undermines children’s well-being,” said Josh Golin, associate director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “It sends a very confusing message.”
McDonald’s did not immediately respond to an interview request.
In an email statement, Coca-Cola Canada said the company aspires to “help people lead active healthy lifestyles through the beverage options we produce, the nutritional information we provide and our support of programs that encourage active healthy living.”
The company noted that its involvement with the Olympics can inspire people to get healthy and active. The statement also highlighted the fact the company has a wide variety of low- and no-calorie options.
Throughout the Olympics, viewers are inundated with ads on TV and social media platforms, many of which are by McDonald’s or Coca-Cola. These ads sometimes feature athletes, which makes them seem like ambassadors for unhealthy eating, Golin said.
The campaign is focused on getting individual athletes to reject these corporate sponsorships instead of asking the International Olympic Committee to put a stop to these decades-long relationships.
There are small signs that the increasing pressure being placed on athletes may be starting to have an impact.
Before the 2012 Summer Games in London, British boxer Amir Khan criticized the decision to allow a massive McDonald’s to be built in the Olympic park.
Then again, Chan – a silver medal winner for Canada – says on a profile posted on the company’s website how “terrific” it is being on Team McDonald’s: “There is a real comfort you feel in representing such an outstanding company.”
He says his favourite McDonald’s menu item is a Double Quarter Pounder, which has 660 calories, 37 grams of fat and 830 milligrams of sodium, without cheese added. But he also notes the McChicken, which has 470 calories, 27 grams of fat and 790 milligrams of sodium, is a close second.