A sponsorship hurdle


With McDonald’s, Coca Cola and Cadbury backing the Olympics, one medical group is calling for a sponsorship review

IT IS a certain bet that whatever the 17,000 competitors at this summer’s Olympic Games in London do to refuel or rehydrate, they will not be eating Big Macs from McDonald’s, bars of Dairy Milk from Cadbury or drinking Coca Cola.

Nothing could be more inimical to a top-class athlete than junk food or chocolate which makes you fat, or sugary drinks which are also fattening and, in the case of Coke, dehydrating because they contain caffeine.

Yet both McDonald’s and Coca Cola are two of the 11 top-tier sponsors of the Olympic Games and have been for decades – in the case of McDonald’s since 1976 and Coca Cola since 1928. Moreover, both companies are locked into Olympic sponsorship until 2020.

Cadbury, a new kid on the sponsorship block, will be the “official treat provider” of the London Olympics. It is also the main sponsor of the Irish Olympic team.

Although there have been grumblings on internet boards and among nutritionists about the blatant contradiction of fast-food purveyors sponsoring the world’s greatest sporting event, it has taken until now for a major medical organisation to call time on the sponsorship arrangement.

The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AoMRC), the body which represents 200,000 doctors in Britain, described the presence of McDonald’s, Coca Cola and Cadbury at the Olympic Games as sending out the “wrong signal”.

Irish-born professor Terence Stephenson, the vice-president of the AoMRC and a paediatrician, said their call for a review of sporting sponsorship has touched a nerve internationally and he has been fielding media inquiries from all around the world.

He explained: “The Olympic Games will only come to the UK once in my lifetime. It is all about celebrating athleticism, health and fitness and what the human body can achieve.

“The idea that it is sponsored by companies that achieve exactly the opposite by creating people who are overweight with massive health problems, both children and adults, seems to me to be completely counter-intuitive. It is a sign that the Olympics has rather lost its way as an organisation.”

The battle to promote healthy living also exercised two of Ireland’s greatest athletes, John Tracey and Senator Eamonn Coghlan, who recently gave powerful testimony to the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children which is investigating childhood obesity.

Senator Coghlan told the committee that he had visited a school when a pupil asked him if he could run around the schoolyard without stopping for a drink. The pupil said he would have to have a Coke to complete a circuit.

Senator Coghlan went on to explain the principles of hydration to him and spoke of the following exchange.

“I said to the young child, ‘does your mummy have any plants growing at home in the house?’”

“Yes, she does,” came the reply.

“What happens if you put a can of Coke on top of the plants?”

“They die.”

“If you put water, what happens?”

“They grow”.

“That’s why you’ve got to drink water and not Coke.”

The former world 5,000m champion has made his Points for Life campaign, which he hopes to begin in September, the central theme of his term as a Senator.

He wants to make it goal-orientated for primary-school children with the emphasis not on sport as such but physical exercise in general and good nutrition.

He maintains that education and not a ban are the best way forwards.

“There’s nothing wrong with McDonald’s and Coca Cola as long as it is done within reason and this is where education comes into play in terms of my Points for Life campaign,” he said.

Cadbury announced its sponsorship of the Irish Olympic and Paralympic teams last month. It has also unveiled two “ambassador athletes” namely Paul Hession, once the fastest white man in the world, and the up-and-coming swimmer Gráinne Murphy.

In a statement, the Olympic Council of Ireland stated: “Commercial sponsors such as Cadbury play a major role in funding team preparations and help the general public to draw inspiration from the performance and success of our top athletes.”

Cadbury said it had started a sponsorship programme, the Cadbury “Spots v Stripes Community Programme” and has sought to engage people by focusing on game-playing as a vehicle to promote community development.

To date, more than 100 Spots v Stripes Community events have taken place and 17,000 people have participated.

McDonald’s is giving away nine million “activity toys” with its Happy Meals to children during the Games to encourage them to take exercise. Coca Cola said it was committed to sponsoring a programme in every country by the end of 2015.

Its Olympics-inspired Move to the Beat initiative will “amplify the importance of active, healthy living”.

Consultant endocrinologist Dr Donal O’Shea said the primary goal of food companies in sponsoring events such as the Olympics was to sell their products irrespective of what else they might do.

Dr O’Shea atttracted some controversy last week for criticising the sponsorship deal between Irish Olympic boxer Katie Taylor and Lucozade, saying it sent out the wrong message.

Olympic sponsorship controversy was only part of a wider issue in which 85 per cent of food advertising was spent on foods that were “non-essential and broadly nutritionally empty”, he said.

“The food companies know that they really need to get somebody into the habit of unhealthy eating by the age of 16. The Olympics is a fantastic opportunity to be positively associated with something that their products will not let you achieve.”

Prof Stephenson borrowed a sporting analogy to say that the campaign to rid sporting events of the link with junk food would be a “marathon not a sprint”.

“When the first report came out in 1959 about the link between lung cancer and cigarettes, people would have thought it crazy that there would eventually be a ban on cigarette advertising,” he said.

“It has taken 50 years. We will need to keep on about this for a decade or more to turn it around.”