Will the Olympics Ever Kick Its Junk Food Habit?

Groups cite hypocrisy of athlete endorsements of junk food and call on gold medalists to reject the Golden Arches.

(Photo: YouTube)

Feb 21, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

The road to the Olympics is paved with hamburgers, submarine sandwiches, and soda. At least that's the story viewers are told in the commercial breaks between NBC's coverage of this and just about every other games, winter and summer alike. Watching skiers and skaters sell fast food and soda products is part of the biannual ritual of the international sporting event.

While most of the nonathletic attention this go-round has appropriately focused on Russia’s anti-homosexuality policies, keeping the events safe from terrorism, and events such as the beating of the punk-protest band Pussy Riot, it’s easy to gloss over the hundreds of athletes who have again joined the International Olympic Committee in selling out to big food in Sochi. But public health advocacy groups are doing their best to highlight what they consider to be a scandal.

In an open letter sent Wednesday, Corporate Accountability International, the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, and The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University implored Olympic medalists to be voices for children’s health by specifically rejecting sponsorship offers from McDonald’s. As a lead sponsor of the games, McDonald’s uses the endorsements of high-profile athletes to “mislead people worldwide into thinking that its brand is healthy,” the letter states. The groups charge athletes to stand up to what they call misleading marketing, citing the example of Olympic boxer Amir Khan, who in 2012 publicly stated that athlete sponsorships of McDonald’s send the wrong message.

“We hope you will join past and current Olympians in publicly renouncing any current or future endorsement, sponsorship and marketing deals from McDonald’s,” writes Sara Deon, Value the Meal coordinator at Corporate Accountability International, in the letter. “Children around the world, today and in generations to come, will thank you.”

McDonald’s and Coca-Cola pay the International Olympic Committee millions for prime placement at the games. As a result, the brands are ubiquitous in Sochi. Similar to the super-McDonald’s London built for athletes in 2012, Sochi’s Olympic Village features two 24-hour restaurants peddling Big Macs and nuggets. Spectators can also dine on McMeals at five additional Golden Arches locations throughout town.

Coca-Cola continued its 86-year tradition of Olympic sponsorship this year, declaring, “If you’ve had a Coke in the last 86 years, you’ve had a hand in making every Olympic dream come true.” United States skier Ted Ligety, who won gold in the giant slalom event on Tuesday, is one of Coke’s biggest endorsers. The skier is also shilling for big food conglomerate Kellogg’s.

Athletes hawking sandwiches for Subway—which is every bit as unhealthy as McDonald’s and only recently decided to stop making sandwiches with a controversial ingredient used in yoga mats—continue to assert that “elite athletes power their training regimens” with fast food.

“It’s hard to know what goes through each individual athlete’s mind when they accept an endorsement for an unhealthy product,” says Megan LoDolce, research associate at The Rudd Center. “Some may see the hypocrisy in it; others may believe that it’s OK to eat these foods once in a while as long as one is otherwise healthy and active—an idea that is pushed often by the food industry. The problem is that research suggests that these foods are no longer ‘once in a while’ foods to many.”

While pressuring the International Olympic Committee to stop accepting junk food endorsements or convincing food companies to dial back their marketing will not likely see much success—the athletes signed the contracts months ago and the games are nearly over, after all—some observers say consumers and athletes may be the best bet for change.

Many Olympic athletes may not know the consequences of their corporate sponsorships, but it doesn’t mean those endorsements aren’t having an impact. Last fall, The Rudd Center wrote a paper, published in the journal Pediatrics, that concluded that food and beverage brands are the second-largest category of athlete endorsements and that the majority of those brands were “energy-dense and nutrient-poor”—in a word, unhealthy. During the Olympics—where successful marketing messages attempt to evoke warm, positive feelings—viewers need to be reminded of the unhealthy reality of the foods we’re seeing. That can be difficult to do in the case of Olympic ads, LaDolce says, where the foods themselves are often intentionally hidden.

“Real change will occur when we can convince the public that corporate benevolence is simply a way to sell more junk food,” LoDolce says. “Advertising products within the backdrop of the Olympic Games creates a healthy halo for brands, as well as positive associations that are not easily discredited in the public eye. People tend to forget what got them mad when there’s so much more to feel good about.”