Media

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.

Maybe you thought that junk food and soft drinks would take a hike during the Olympics, the world’s largest celebration of bodies at the peak of health and fitness. But if you thought that, you’d be wrong. McDonald’s and Coca Cola are almost as ubiquitous as the five rings up here in Vancouver. 

We’re drowning in evidence of the detrimental effects of soft drinks, and being crushed under the weight of research about the consequences of junk food. Yet these Olympics seem to be setting records for the number of billboards and TV commercials selling sugar-filled and empty calorie food and drink. And also for the number of athletes shilling them, and even equating them with national pride. If you believe what you see and hear, you’d think junk food and soft drinks are the stuff Olympic and other dreams are made of. 

In one McDonald’s TV commercial, played dozens of times, for example, snowboarder Brad Martin says he “gives into temptation” to eat French fries every chance he gets. To him, that’s a “golden moment.” Martin is sponsored by McDonald’s.

One local pediatrician, Dr. Tom Warshawki, recently spoke out on CBC against the trend, saying that the Olympics might promote physical activity among young people, but that doesn’t make up for the potential harm of sweet drinks and fast food. In fact, the value those companies bring to society through athletic sponsorships is far less than what their products cost the health care system. 

He said, "We know that it's very, very difficult to exercise off the calories of all these foods.” A 13-year-old boy who drank a 591-ml soft drink, for example, would have to jog for 50 minutes to burn off the 260 calories the drink contains.

Kids don’t just tune these ads out, or react in horror as some of us do; instead, he said that seeing Olympic athletes eat or drink certain products is persuasive: "Kids tend to eat while they watch and what they watch.” Junk food and soft drinks may be bad for us, but when athletes promote them, people, especially kids, consume them.

And those ads are everywhere. Vancouver itself is drowning a sea of red and white. Partly because those are our national colors, but partly because surfaces, screens, tents and signs are adorned with Coca Cola. But more importantly, the box is too. Olympic TV commercials are kind of like Super Bowl ads except in the Games, ads are a marathon, not a sprint: the same Olympic ones get played again and again, sometimes hundreds of times. The irony is that many of the TV ads in this marathon promote food and drink that would make running, or any kind of activity, hard if not impossible.

Snowboarder Brad Martin is one athlete selling McDonalds, and making it seem like McDonald’s food is key to his success. Everytime I see him smiling with his fries, I think of Supersize Me, and how I don’t exactly associate McDonald’s with peak physical performance. Under one story about the ads, a commenter said, “Show me an athlete that eats at McDonalds and I'll show you an athlete that isn't going to add to his or her country's medal count!” 

And under another, a commenter wrote, “What a JOKE! McDonald's commercials with our STAR athletes CHOWING down on a breakfast McMuff. Yea, right.... That'll get you on the podium, in a weight gaining competition!!!!! Fatter, Swifter, Heavier???????” 

It’s not just McDonald’s and Coke in the game. There’s an ad for Kraft Dinner that I’ve seen dozens of times, featuring Kraft Dinner pledge. Cute, healthy kids and adults promise, in a patriotic style, promise to eat their “KD” and even lick the plate. One tweeter wrote, “The Kraft Dinner "Pledge" commercial is well done. It's a shame it's basically poison.”

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.