Comment: How can we allow McDonalds in the Olympics?

By Malcolm Clark

Chocolate mascots, a torch relay fronted by a fizzy drinks firm and the construction of the world’s largest burger restaurant – it is unlikely this is what the founders of the modern Olympics had in mind for the public celebration of a global sporting spectacular. Neither is it likely that they would have envisaged the Games being sponsored by some of the world’s biggest junk food manufacturers, heavily promoting their unhealthy products at every opportunity.

Times and tastes change, but the basis of a healthy lifestyle does not. What we are now seeing come to fruition in London 2012 is a cynical marketing strategy that contradicts medical advice, undermines parents’ best efforts to encourage their children to eat healthily, and is likely to leave a legacy of greater obesity.

In many other arenas, the promotion and consumption of unhealthy foods such as burgers and chips, fizzy drinks, chocolate and sugary snacks are either regulated or at least discouraged. Think, for instance, of the school food nutritional standards, the ban on junk food advertising during children’s television programmes, red traffic lights on some food labels, or the advice from the government’s Change4Life anti-obesity campaign.

Yet, in Stratford – and everywhere and anytime the Games are being promoted or viewed – junk food manufacturers and their products are being given significant prominence and credibility. The sponsors are the big winners of the Games. They covet the associations with athleticism and success as Olympic heroes line up on the track in adverts next to their logos and products.

But what effect does McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Cadbury’s official sponsorship of the Olympic Games have on our children? As a systematic review commissioned by the Food Standards Agency and more recent studies have concluded, promoting junk food to children influences their food preferences, purchasing behaviour and consumption and increases their risk of health problems in childhood and later life. That McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Cadbury’s have the exclusive rights for branded food and soft drink products at the Games makes things worse by blocking brands and manufacturers with healthier alternatives.

Sadly, the Olympic organisers flunked the chance to include nutritional standards in the otherwise pioneering London 2012 Food Vision. Based on sample menus, it seems likely that visitors to the Olympic Park will have a challenge to find healthy options amidst the myriad of catering outlets serving hot dogs, ribs, burgers and other American-style fare. Sushi may be a healthier alternative, but is not necessarily a child-friendly one. The prices at these food stands are not family-friendly either, making a stop at one of the McDonald’s outlets even more attractive.

Whilst it is possible to get some healthier items in McDonald’s, such as the little bags of apples or carrots available with a Happy Meal, the numbers of them to be sold during the Games is never trumpeted by the company; unlike the 50,000 Big Macs, 100,000 portions of chips and 30,000 milkshakes they proudly claim will be served in their mega-restaurant during that period. Even where the Olympics has got it right, by providing free drinking water, airline-style security rules on plastic bottles will provide an additional hurdle to those wanting to fill up.

Furthermore, the sponsors’ ability to dictate the Games' experience for children goes far beyond the Olympic Park. Of most concern are the merchandising and food tie-ins with Wenlock and Mandeville, aimed squarely at the Olympic mascots’ 5-15 year old target audience. Another pernicious effect of the sponsorship deals is that they enable companies to pretend that they are part of the obesity solution rather than part of the problem. Whilst promoting physical activity seems positive, no amount of free ‘get fit’ and sporting initiatives will make unhealthy diets any less unhealthy.

Back in April, the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges specifically singled out sponsorship of the Games by fast food and soft drink firms including McDonald’s and Coca-Cola as sending out the wrong health message. Now, the torch relay is bringing home many of the concerns they and other health campaigners have raised. For the family-orientated celebration through Britain’s streets has been – in the words of numerous spectators – “hijacked” by Coca-Cola and its branded “juggernauts” which accompany the flame, together with assistants handing out free samples and merchandise to children and their parents.

The International Olympic Committee’s selection of sponsors suggests that it seems to care rather more about the pounds in its pocket than the pounds of fat belonging to our already obese society. Meanwhile, the Department of Health has added to McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Cadbury’s veneer of credibility through its Responsibility Deal, which allows these companies to pretend they are doing something substantial whilst they continue to aggressively market their junk foods and drinks.

The London Assembly has taken a rather stronger stance, last month passing a motion calling for a ban on the sponsorship of the Games by companies that produce high calorie food and drink. The Children’s Food Campaign will be launching a report on the subject a few days before the opening ceremony, picking up the Assembly’s baton and campaigning for change at future Games. For ultimately, it is up to all of us – whether Gamesmakers, spectators, armchair fans or Olympic refuseniks – to make a stand against the double standards which see companies making fat profits out of a sporting event at the expense of the health of our children and young people.

Malcolm Clark is the co-ordinator of Children’s Food Campaign. Follow them on Twitter.

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