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Not long after Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt stunned the crowd in Beijing by setting a world record in the 100-metre sprint on Saturday, he produced another surprise: The world's fastest man likes fast food. In fact, his prerace meal that day was none other than Chicken McNuggets.

It was not the kind of endorsement you might expect from a fine-tuned Olympic athlete on game day - but Mr. Bolt is by no means alone. In an unusual trend that has emerged from the Beijing Games, a growing number of athletes have been plugging McDonald's in interviews.

Among them, U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte told NBC he'd eaten McDonald's "almost every meal" in Beijing, while American discus thrower Stephanie Brown Trafton and track athlete Billy Nelson have also mentioned the Golden Arches. And upon winning her second gold medal, British swimmer Rebecca Adlington declared: "I'm going to have McDonald's." Coincidence? McDonald's Corp. says yes.

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Outside of endorsement deals with several top U.S. athletes, including one with Mr. Lochte, McDonald's says it has not been paying athletes to talk up the brand.

Each of the references - at least a dozen so far, and counting - have been unsolicited, but welcomed by the company.

"We have no marketing relationship with Usain Bolt," McDonald's spokeswoman Laura Cain said, and played down suggestions that the restaurant may now try to seek one. "Different athletes are saying things, and a lot of them we don't have relationships with."

Advertising experts say it's no accident. In fact, what is playing out in Beijing is instead the result of a savvy marketing strategy that began when McDonald's paid upwards of $70-million (U.S.) to become the official restaurant of the Summer Olympics. With that, it secured rights to install restaurants on the grounds in Beijing - including a massive facility in the heart of the athletes village.

It is the largest McDonald's restaurant in the world, the company said, and the menu is free for all athletes, meaning the product is finding its way into the hands of many.

The endorsements that flow are not coincidental, said Jason Silver, president of FTWK, a Toronto-based firm that specializes in product placements.

"I don't think it ever is truly an accident," he said. "It is a strategic placement on McDonald's part, to offer it to the athletes at their doorstep ... and the spill-off that comes is a bonus."

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The result has been a stream of free advertising, from the coach of the U.S. boxing team talking about the squad's trip to McDonald's to Mr. Bolt's interview, which advertising executives suggest could be worth millions in terms of endorsement value.

McDonald's is by no means where the majority of athletes are getting their food in the village, though the operation has been a boon for the brand. Most athletes are opting for strict diets at the village's other eating facilities, while some countries have arrived with their own chefs and food.

McDonald's has sponsorship deals with two Canadian athletes - diver Alexandre Despatie and sprint kayaker Karen Furneaux - but they do not include bonuses for mentioning the brand in interviews. Other Canadian athletes, however, have become unofficial spokespeople. After gymnast Kyle Shewfelt was eliminated, he drowned his sorrows at the restaurant: "What did I eat? A better question might be: What didn't I eat? I had my usual Big Mac."

The quote made newspapers around the world, though Mr. Shewfelt does not receive any compensation.

"Looking at the Games so far, McDonald's clearly has a product placement strategy," said Joshua Ostroff, president of Virtual Media Resources, a Boston-area firm that tracks the impact ad campaigns have in the market. By slinging free fast food in the athletes village, the brand is clearly on competitors' minds.

"If you show an implied endorsement such as Bolt talking about Chicken McNuggets, that's golden," Mr. Ostroff said. "Some people will tell you it's worth millions of dollars."

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McDonald's officials have noticed the number of mentions the company is getting. Ms. Cain said McDonald's has no estimates of how much each mention could be worth to its marketing.

Mr. Silver believes verbal endorsement deals could one day become more prevalent in sport. When it comes to product placements, a celebrity mentioning a brand is deemed more valuable than a background logo in a camera shot.

However, it can backfire. When Mr. Lochte - whose McDonald's deal puts his image on packaging - apparently looked sluggish in one of his races, commentators wondered if his diet may have been a factor. That can hurt a brand, just as much as an unsolicited endorsement can help. "If it's something where the product is not cast in a favourable light, that can be worse than no publicity at all," Mr. Ostroff said.

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