Should we ban junk food Olympic sponsors?

The eyes of the world are focusing on Rio as the 2016 Summer Olympic Games kicks off. The world’s top athletes dedicate their lives to the pursuit of excellence, honing every fine detail of their training programme, sleep schedule and diet to achieve feats that us mere mortals can only dream of.

And yet.

While visitors to Rio are marvelling at the record-smashing feats of the sportsmen and women in front of them, they will most likely be munching on burgers and guzzling fizzy drinks. For the officially sanctioned food and drink sponsors of the Olympic Games 2016 are none other than McDonalds and Coca-Cola.

Professor Terence Stephenson, paediatrician and chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, spoke for many of us when he said: “At an event that celebrates athletic achievement, I don’t think we need to promote high-calorie, high-fat foods that are not good for the health of the human body.”

We recently ran a poll on Twitter to ask our followers what they thought of junk food companies sponsoring events like the Olympics. A resounding 83% said they thought the practice should be banned.

Ahead of London 2012, the organisers faced a barrage of criticism from health campaigners concerned that their sponsorship deals were sending a poor message to a population with a growing obesity crisis. International Olympic Committee Jacques Rogge went as far as to say that the financial demands of the event made it difficult for it to hold onto its core values. But in January 2012, McDonalds was re-signed as a sponsor for a further eight years.

McDonalds justifies its sponsorship by focusing on the benefits for its employees. In a statement, it said: “The Olympics is one of very few truly global events and we are a global company, operating in over 100 countries around the world. Many of our customers and our staff love the Olympics and our sponsorship means that they can get involved. For example, we give our best employees from around the world the opportunity to work in our restaurants at the Olympic Park – providing a unique opportunity to attend the Games and experience the culture of the host city.”

Prior to London 2012, good food and farming advocates Sustain produced a report that estimated less than 10% of the funding for 2012 came from corporate sponsorship. The report also criticised the practice of “obesity offsetting” that junk food companies undertake by funding sports equipment and exercise schemes, stating: “this is just seeking to downplay the role diet has in obesity, rather than acknowledging that both increased activity and a healthier diet are vital.”

Tackling the obesity crisis is about so much more than eating less and moving more. In much the same way that vending machines in hospitals send a tacit message out to patients that snacking on chocolate and crisps is ok; allowing producers of high-calorie food to sponsor world class sporting events is tantamount to saying “just run a bit and you can eat all the burgers you want”.

Much was made of Usain Bolt’s claim to have breakfasted on chicken nuggets before his world record smash at London 2012. But in an interview with GQ magazine, he outlines a typical diet of eggs, pasta, meat, fish and vegetables, saying: “During the day I only eat just enough to have energy for training… my coach wants me to eat a lot of vegetables, so I do eat more of that than anything else.”

An estimated 480,000 people will travel to Rio to watch the Games this year, with a further 4 billion people around the globe turning in at home. The International Olympic Committee had a golden opportunity to make a major positive contribution to the obesity crisis and the future health of generations. Instead they chose the cold hard cash of corporations looking to put a positive spin on their products. If we’re truly going to tackle the fact that every 11 seconds someone dies of an obesity-related illness, then we need major players like the IOC to step up and play their part in changing attitudes to diet.