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The Olympics and Its Stars Pimp for Junk Food

Olympics advertising is an orgy of sugar and empty calories, thanks to the athletes who shill fast food for cash.

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There’s a long history of athletes promoting their sponsors’ products in exchange for funding. Mary Lou Retton, and plenty of other athletes, were paid to endorse Wheaties, for example, back in the day. And I know funding for athletes doesn’t grow on trees. But the cost of having heroes push junk food is much higher than the one their sponsor pays.  

Recently, on CBC TV, Coke spokesperson David Moran defended the artificial flavor, corn-syrup-based beverage by saying "A lot of athletes will tell you they'll actually drink Coke before or after they compete to get that energy boost and refreshment that [it] provides.” 

But in fact, nutritionists and health authorities widely consider junk food and soft drinks so damaging that many are proposing a junk food tax. A  recent report from the independent Institute of Medicine and National Research Council strongly recommends a junk food tax.  

The report says that "The prevalence of childhood obesity has tripled in just three decades," and that nearly 18 percent of U.S. adolescents are obese. 
A Reuters article says that “While the food and restaurant industry cites personal choice and a lack of exercise, many reports have shown that unhealthy food is cheaper, more readily available and more heavily marketed than more healthful foods.” And reports state that the soft drink industry isn’t fizzling out either: the American Heart Association recently said that the $115 billion soft drink industry, is the number one source of added sugars in the American diet.

Proponents of taxes say they could “help offset the estimated $147 billion cost of treating obesity-related diseases and fund programs to battle the expanding girths of Americans.”

It’s a situation that’s getting worse, not better.  Last year, obesity rates increased in 23 states and did not decrease in a single state, according to  F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing in America 2009 . The percentage of obese or overweight children is at or above 30 percent in 30 states.

The report also highlights the fact that “the economic crisis could exacerbate the obesity epidemic. Food prices, particularly for more nutritious foods, are expected to rise, making it more difficult for families to eat healthy foods. At the same time, safety-net programs and services are becoming increasingly overextended as the numbers of unemployed, uninsured and underinsured continue to grow. In addition, due to the strain of the recession, rates of depression, anxiety and stress, which are linked to obesity for many individuals, also are increasing.”

It’s not innocuous for athletes or their sponsors to exacerbate that problem. And to push what Michael Pollan calls “ edible food-like substances” that actually lead to obesity and chronic diseases.  

Sure, we all consume and do things that are bad for us sometimes. But it’s one thing for a company to admit its products are terrible for you, it’s another to pretend that the world’s fittest, strongest, fastest people rely on them for those attributes. And it’s yet another for one of the most powerful athletic corporations in the world, the IOC, to encourage it.

Vanessa Richmond is an AlterNet contributing writer.

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