Article first published as Do Controversial Sponsors Undermine the Olympic Games? on Blogcritics.

With just over two weeks until the London 2012 Olympic Games get underway, expectations and excitement are starting to build momentum. Yet, amidst the optimism of London hosting a successful games is outrage, and not only because a mass of tickets have been given to corporate entities and not put up for general release. The sponsorship of the Games by companies who make fortunes from extremely unhealthy drinks and food has led to some to question how this could ever have been allowed.

The backdrop to this latest controversy is the fact that obesity is rising exponentially. In 2004, the World Health Organization stated that obesity is a global epidemic. The rise of obesity is particularly prevalent in the UK, with 60.8% of adults and 31.1% of children classed as obese. This in itself is highly dangerous, but can also cause lead to further health problems including diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and even some forms of cancer. It places huge stress on the NHS, with the National Audit Office calculating a £500million cost directly on it, and a wider cost of £2billion to society.

Specifically, in the last 30 years processed food has taken over the British diet, and obesity has increased ‘in parallel’. In the past 10 years diabetes has doubled in Newham, the home of the Olympic village. This problem is only getting worse. At current rates and without any intervention by the government, 90% of adults will be termed obese by 2050, which will cost the taxpayer an estimated £45billion. Simply put, there has been an explosion of health related problems and this has led to a public health disaster.

One may ask, what has all this got to do with the Olympics? Choices about what we eat are up to the individual, and furthermore, how are personal lifestyle choices relevant to the sporting spectacle in London this summer?  Given that the Olympic Games is a global platform for sporting greatness underpinned by healthy lifestyles, it seems paradoxical that they are being sponsored by companies whose products are so detrimental to our health. Tony Jewell, one of the UK’s top doctors, has gone as far to openly condemn these sponsorships be stating they have ‘no place in sporting events’.

Tobacco advertising is ‘unthinkable’ in sporting events. The Olympics would not even consider the sponsorship by any tobacco company and was even the first major sporting event to cancel any sponsorship deals. The health risks associated with tobacco consumption are well documented therefore the Olympics cannot be seen to endorse a product so damaging to one’s health. Yet, diet-related illnesses kill 35 million people worldwide; this is five times as many as tobacco. How can the sponsorship deals with Coca-cola, McDonalds, Cadbury’s or Heineken be supported then? Surely, as Dr Aseem Malhotra believes this sends a ‘dreadful message’. He believes that the UK should take the lead and leave a positive legacy for health from the Olympics.

These sponsorships can apparently be easily defended. A spokesman said: ‘Sponsors provide a huge amount of the funding required to stage the Games – without our sponsors, the Games simply wouldn’t happen.’ The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has issued the public backing of its sponsors within the last week, stating that:

‘The IOC only enters into partnerships with organisations that it believes work in accordance with the values of the Olympic Movement. Before entering or extending any partnership, we have a duty on behalf of all of the stakeholders in the Olympic Movement to consider this partnership very carefully, particularly where we enter partnerships on a long term basis. We are proud to work with both Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, with whom we have long term agreements in place through 2020.’ Coca-cola, McDonalds, Cadbury’s and Heineken have also all released similar statements of how proud they each are to be working with the Olympics.

It appears then that the IOC has been put in a peculiar situation: sponsorship is from commercial sources which seem to contrast with the status of the Olympic Games; yet sponsorship has not been offered from other commercial sources, which would compliment the nature of the Olympic Games. The challenge may then be to make sure that the companies under dispute understand their responsibility to the community, both in a local sense and a global one due to the worldwide audience held by the Olympics this summer.

Michael Payne, former IOC Marketing Director, goes as far as to state that we all need to look to the ‘broader life-style agenda’. This is twofold in that it takes the shift of the impact that each sponsor has on our lives, but also that we should look to what else the sponsors have done to improve health. He points to the programmes and sporting events that each of the sponsors run; for example, using their reach to get more children involved. This is particularly important, he finds, when the government is cutting back on these sorts of activities. Perhaps more importantly for the appeasement of opponents, however, is how he found that the Olympics pioneered and pushed for the sponsors to be more health conscious. McDonalds has introduced healthier meals, such as salads; Coca-cola has introduced sports drinks, which is all in accordance to what the IOC wanted.

Even with all this support for the sponsors, it will appear strange to most that there has been the building of a huge McDonalds. At 30,000 square feet in the Olympic Village, with capacity for over 1500 people, it will be the largest in the world.  Diane Abbott MP recognises the fundamental issue with sponsorship in that ‘these are products which are all very well as a treat, but what Olympic sponsorship allows them to do is promote their brand and insinuate themselves into people’s daily diet.’ Whether intentional or not, these companies acting as sponsors to such a huge global event makes it seem like the consumption of their products on a regular basis is acceptable, when in fact they pose genuine risks to our health.

Ultimately, it is up to each of us to judge for ourselves if we think the sponsorship deals are acceptable. The Olympics are not responsible for the obesity epidemic and wider health issues, but these endorsements do not help. Yet, consideration must be given to the fact that it may not be possible to stage the Olympics at all if these commercial sources were legally prohibited.

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