McOlympics? That’s fine with me
Who cares if it’s sponsored by Coca-Cola and Cadbury? The critics of London 2012’s fast-food funders can go take a running jump.
As part of spiked‘s ongoing ‘In defence of the Olympics’ series, Rob Lyons takes on those who believe that fast-food and fizzy-drinks sponsorship is creating a legacy of fatness.
‘It’s very sad that an event that celebrates the very best of athletic achievements should be sponsored by companies contributing to the obesity problem and unhealthy habits.’ So said Professor Terence Stephenson, spokesman for the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, firing the starting pistol on a medical war against fast-food sponsorship of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Britain’s medical doctors - or the bigwigs who represent them, at least - are far from alone in pointing to the contradiction between the Olympics as the pinnacle of human physical prowess and the fact that the Games are being part-funded by the sponsorship of companies whose products are held responsible for obesity, heart disease, cancer and type-2 diabetes, including McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Cadbury. Nor is it just about money. At the heart of the Olympic Park is the biggest McDonald’s restaurant you are ever likely to see, seating 1,500 burger-and-fries munching punters, while all the soft drinks on site will be Coca-Cola brands and the only branded beer will be Heineken.
In the Observer last Sunday, columnist Catherine Bennett offered this jaundiced view of the London organising committee (Locog) and its approach to funding the Olympics: ‘If the Games have a message this time around, it is to forget the endless miserabilism of Jamie Oliver, Michelle Obama, the Danish nanny state and even, for God’s sake, New York’s soda-hating Mayor Bloomberg, and accept Locog’s preferred maxim: obesity for all… With sponsors like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola – awarded sole rights to all the park’s branded non-alcoholic drinks – and Cadbury, “official treat provider to the 2012 Olympics”, there is good reason to believe the fatness legacy of these Games will last, like the financial damage, for generations.’
Essentially, doctors, nutritionists and commentators seem to believe that the mere sight of those McDonald’s ‘golden arches’ is enough to turn us into salivating hordes who won’t be satisfied till we are chomping down on a feast of saturated fat, with a side order of coronary-inducing confectionery and a super-sized portion of fizzy diabetes juice. In the fairytale world of health campaigners and liberal columnists, the masses are stupid, child-like drones being force-fed lethal products by heartless, malevolent corporations.
Let’s face it: sponsorship is always a bit weird. The Olympics really will be the greatest show on Earth and big corporations like the idea of having some of that glory rub off on them, even if that ends up with them adopting such bizarre taglines as ‘official treat provider’. We all know the Olympics doesn’t really need an official treat provider any more than it needs an official payment services provider, an official human-resources provider or any of that other guff. It’s just advertising, folks.
Indeed, given the eye-watering sums that those multinationals will be forking out in exchange for this brand alignment, it could as easily be argued that the Olympics is just a way of screwing lots of cash out of gullible companies. Locog told spiked that some £700million has been provided in sponsorship specifically for London 2012 - and that does not include the enormous amounts being paid by worldwide Olympic sponsors like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. If my tax bill is a bit smaller in exchange for mega-corps being allowed to stick that godawful 2012 logo on their merchandising, I think I can live with the contradictions that creates. Suckers.
article continues after advertisement
Furthermore, despite the assumptions of Those Who Know Best, we are not empty vessels into which advertisers pour ideas and then we dumbly respond. At best, Olympic sponsors are trying to persuade more of us to consume their products rather than their rivals’ products. McDonald’s is spending a fortune to persuade us to eat Big Macs rather than Whoppers. Coca-Cola is throwing bucketloads of cash at the Games in the hope we’ll drink ‘the real thing’ and not Pepsi. It’s far from clear that we will eat more burgers and fries or glug down more fizzy drinks overall just because of the Olympics.
Nor is it clear that any of these products are necessarily unhealthy. A Big Mac meal is a perfectly nutritious meal, containing plenty of protein, vitamins, minerals and calories - yes, we do actually need to get our bodily energy from somewhere. Equally, sugary drinks also provide energy. There’s nothing wrong with that. Admittedly, if you decide to bombard your body with gallons of sickly sweet sugary drinks, there is an increased risk of buggering up your body’s system of dealing with sugar - through the production of insulin - but there is no problem with drinking sugary soda in moderation. Its critics also seem to forget that Coca-Cola produces many increasingly popular sugar-free drinks, too. Diet Coke is now the No.2 selling soft drink in the US. Big corporations adapt to changing consumer demand or they stop being big corporations.
What we don’t need is yet more lifestyle micromanagement and dictatorial bans. We should be free to make the ‘wrong’ choices. If doctors think there is a clear problem with such foods and drinks, they should state it clearly and then let us make up our own minds. Instead, some medics and campaigners are demanding that we demonise - yes, demonise - fizzy drinks and fast food. It’s like they are on a non-stop, illiberal sugar rush.
One hyperventilating New York Times columnist, Mark Bittman, declared last week: ‘We should be encouraging people to eat real food and discouraging the consumption of non-food. Pretending there’s no difference is siding with the merchants of death who would have us eat junk at the expense of food and spend half our lives earning enough money to deal with the health consequences.’ Language like ‘merchants of death’ was once used to refer to arms dealers - now it’s being used to describe companies who sell chicken nuggets and fizzy pop.
What is required in response to this overwrought condemnation of Olympic sponsors is a supersized serving of perspective. In a recent enlightening interview between two Olympic greats, America’s Michael Johnson and Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, they talked about Bolt winning the 100 metres title at the Beijing games after a meal of chicken nuggets. ‘We work out every day, so we can eat pretty much what we want to eat, as long as there’s balance’, says Johnson. ‘There’s no need to stress about what you eat as long as it’s a balanced diet’, concurs Bolt. Why did Bolt eat chicken nuggets before the big race? Because when you’re not sure about the food somewhere, it’s best to stick to food you know won’t give you any problems - like McDonald’s.
So, while no one would pretend that gold medals are won on a relentless diet of nuggets, chocolate and fizzy pop, world-class athletes do sometimes eat ‘junk’ food and still perform stunning feats of speed, strength and endurance. If that relaxed attitude is good enough for Johnson and Bolt, it’s good enough for me. The critics of London 2012’s funding can go take a running jump.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.