The Olympics, Junk Food and Choice.

Last Friday marked the start of the London Olympic Games. They are an event that celebrates sport, competition, perseverance, national pride and dedication to physical health. So what does this have to do with food? Well, for one thing, there is a tonne controversy surrounding the junk-food sponsors of the 2012 Olympics. Two of the Worldwide Olympic Partners are McDonald’s and Coca Cola with sponsorship contracts until 2020. For the London 2012 Olympic Games Cadbury is among the official “supporters” and Heineken UK is one of the many “suppliers and providers” of the games. In the official IOC Marketing: Media Guide London 2012 document, Coca Cola boasts that it is “proud to be the longest continuous sponsor of the Olympic Games, in a partnership that has spanned 84 years.”

The issue, for many, is that McDonald’s, Coca Cola and Cadbury are makers of junk food, food that does not contribute to health. Some assert it is incongruous with the spirit of athleticism for which the Olympics stand. Opponents state that without such popular sponsors, the Olympics could not afford to be held (which may be true) and that it is up to each individual to make their own choices when it comes to food.

There are many great articles outlining the debate, but this one by CBS news, has Dr. Marion Nestle weighing in (love her) and this article by Neville Rigby for the Guardian UK is also definitely worth giving a quick read.

It is on the “individual choice” point that many disagree. I think it is also the most important point that has come from the controversy over the Olympic junk food sponsors and one I think could be paid a lot more attention. Do we really have the ability to choose? Does everyone have the same freedom to choose what they eat?

Last month, Courtney Shea interviewed Nick Saul of The Stop Community Food Centre for The Grid. The interview progressed toward the notion of choice when it comes to food. Shea asked what Saul thought of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s sweetened drink ban. Stating that he was totally for it, Saul asserts, We’re not going to change anything by assuming that people can and will change their own habits. We’ve got to lead by regulating this stuff.” When asked if that does not leave much responsibility to the consumer, Saul responds, “There was a great study done in the States that showed that the marketing budget for one sugar cereal was the same as the entire public health budget in the U.S. This is not an even fight.We privatize profit and socialize cost. Look at diet-related illness. That’s our bill as taxpayers..”

I think that Saul is touching on something very important. McDonald’s and Coca Cola are very powerful companies, which is why they can afford to be counted among the biggest sponsors of the Olympics. They are literally everywhere.There are people who live in neighbourhoods that do not have grocery stores, referred to as “food deserts”. What these areas often do have are fast food restaurants and convenience stores. (Sociological Images has an excellent, very concise post about US food deserts, if you are interested.) A lot of money is spent on fast food advertising, branding and availability. Likely much, much more than what governments spent on nutrition education and to ensure access to nutritious food. When you consider this, it becomes harder to accept the idea that consumers can just chose to eat healthy food or, for that matter, chose not to eat junk food.

Is it the responsibility of the Olympics to take a stand? Is the contested illusion of consumer choice really their problem? Probably not.

What about diet-related illness? Nestle and others have made the point that you don’t see cigarette sponsors for the Olympics, presumably for the same health related objection that is currently being made regarding fast food. But the Olympics did accept sponsorship from cigarette companies up until 1984 as far as I can find. The Olympic Marketing Fact File 2012 Addition mentions cigarettes only once. Under the 1964 Tokyo Olympics reads, “The new ‘Olympia’ cigarette brand generates more than US$1 million in revenue for the OCOG.” Right beside this, in brackets, is the line: “The tobacco sponsorship category is later banned.”

For those who believe the decision to eat junk food is one everyone can make freely, surely cigarette smoking did (and still does) boil down to individual choice. The OCOG took a stand then. Why not now?

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