Will the London Olympics Ban McDonald’s and Coca-Cola?

To make a statement about rising obesity rates, the London Assembly has voted to call for a ban on two of the games’ biggest sponsors.
The world's largest McDonald's restaurant will open at the Olympic Park in London in time for the Olympics. Not everybody's happy about it. (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
Jul 8, 2012
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Every four years, the world's best-performing athletes convene in a flurry of washboard abs and chiseled physiques to compete in one of the biggest sports competitions in the world: the Summer Olympics. To prepare, athletes train hard and eat well around the clock. Why, then, are two of the event's biggest sponsors corporations that hawk fatty foods and sugary drinks? That's a question posed by the London Assembly, who's urging a ban on McDonald's and Coca-Cola for the summer games, reports The Telegraph.

A sponsor since 1976, McDonald's has eagerly anticipated its 2012 sponsorship of the Summer Games by planning the opening of the world's largest McDonald's. The Olympic Park McDonald's will seat 1,500 people (ten times the size of a typical outlet), and is expected to sell 50,000 Big Macs during the course of the games. That's 50,000 too many, say members of the London Assembly. Opponents of the chain's presence argue that an event born of athletic prowess should not be funded by companies that sell high-calorie foods that contribute to childhood obesity.

Coca-Cola, a sponsor of the Olympics since 1928, is also under scrutiny, both for its high-calorie drinks and, in its diet sodas, a controversial sweetener called aspartame.

The motion to ban Coca-Cola and McDonald's was proposed by the Green Party's Jenny Jones, who, according to TIME, told the assembly, "London won the right to host the 2012 Games with the promise to deliver a legacy of more active, healthier children across the world. Yet the same International Olympic Committee that awarded the games to London persists in maintaining sponsorship deals with the purveyors of high calorie junk that contributes to the threat of an obesity epidemic."

Jones got the Assembly's support. The Assembly passed a motion urging the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to adopt strict sponsorship criteria that it hopes will outlaw companies that contribute to childhood obesity. As an elected body with the power to amend the mayor's annual budget, the Assembly's support is significant.

Dr. Onkar Sahota, who seconded the motion in the London Assembly's meeting of the Council, says the high-profile event will help to advertise unhealthy foods whose marketing is already restricted on children's television. 

"These Games will subvert those regulations by providing a glut of sponsored messages for high calorie food and drink that are at odds with the Olympian athletic ideal," he told The Telegraph.

According to The Telegraph, an estimated 60.8 percent of adults in the U.K. and 31.1 percent of children are overweight.

A primary goal of hosting the Olympics was to bolster the country's image in its commitment to health. The London Assembly states that inviting McDonald's and Coca-Cola to the Games runs counter to that message.

Already, McDonald's has ruffled feathers by bypassing London's commitment to local and sustainable sourcing for the Games. Though the London Olympic and Paralympic Organizing Committee developed and published a plan requiring food vendors to adhere to British Red Tractor standards of quality and sourcing out of the U.K., McDonald's announced it would source all but 10 percent of its chicken from elsewhere. It also only plans to source 55 percent of its other ingredients from the U.K.

Trouble is, McDonald's and Coca-Cola are valuable cash cows, making banning them from the Games a hairy situation. According to TIME, "Cash generated by commercial partnerships accounts for more than 40% of Olympic revenues, and the companies under fire have been two of the biggest contributors for many years." 

TIME's Jak Phillips spells out the financial risk of dropping such monied sponsors:

Involvement of this level comes at a hefty price. The Olympic Partner (TOP) sponsors likely pay about $100 million for a four-year commitment, and sponsors typically spend three to four times the sponsorship amount to plan and execute the associated marketing campaigns.

Phillips adds that between 2005 and 2008, revenue from TOP came to around $866 million, in addition to advertising spending.

In their defense, Coca-Cola and McDonald's point out that their fare will not only comprise unhealthy food options. Coca-Cola says more than 75 percent of the drinks it expects to sell will be water, juice, or sugar-free drinks (those that, as previously mentioned, contain aspartame). McDonald's says that in addition to burgers and fries, it will offer porridge, bagels, and salads, adding that companies aren't solely responsible for the weight of a nation. 

"Ultimately it's up to individuals to make the right food, drink, and activity choices for themselves," a McDonald's spokesperson told TIME.

What do you think? Do the Games' organizers have a responsibility to find healthier sponsors? Should McDonald's and Coca-Cola be doing more? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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