27 July 2012

Decoding the McDonald's, Olympics sponsorship debate

We asked FitnessDoc Dr Ross Tucker what he thought of the McDonald’s sponsorship of the 2012 Olympics and what sort of message this sends out to the public. this is what he said.


We asked FitnessDoc Dr Ross Tucker what he thought of the McDonald’s sponsorship of the Olympics and what sort of message this sends out to the public. this is what he said:

It would of course be far better for the 2012 Olympic Games to avoid this kind of relationship.  In an ideal world, the sponsors would fit with the vision and ideal of the event, and companies like McDonald's would be excluded from the relationship.  

However, having said that, I don't quite go so far as to condemn the sponsorship with the same fears and concerns many others seem to have had.  As a physiologist, I am of course involved in and invested in health and wellness through exercise, and so the notion of McDonald's Golden Arch being the backdrop to the world's fittest and best athletes is surreal.  

However, I think there is something of an over-reaction by people as to how this piece of the puzzle fits into the global obesity epidemic.  I would be very surprised if the association that McDonald's has bought with the Olympic movement is in anyway creating a perception that McDonald's is healthy, or that people who see McDonald's as a sponsor are gullible enough to buy fast-food as a result.  

If they are, then they would likely be even more susceptible to a giant billboard along a highway or a television advertisement, and the presence of McDonald's at the Games is unlikely to turn them into regular fast-food eaters. 

Conflicting messages?

I spent two years working in sports sponsorship, and so I know how the relationship works between the rights holder (the IOC in this instance) and the sponsor (McDonalds).  The reality, unfortunate as it may be, is that the kind of money that these corporations are willing to spend is essential to the sustainability of the sport and Games. 

So when the IOC sells a sponsorship to McDonald's, they are admittedly opening themselves up to criticism for "selling out" and compromising the message of health and wellness that most people in the public perceive them to have.  Perhaps McDonald's are willing to pay a premium of millions for the association, in the hope that some people will see elite athletes somehow endorsing a fast-food burger chain. 

But this is, in my opinion, is reading too much into this particular sponsorship.  I think more likely, McDonald's are looking at the Olympic Games as a huge billboard, an enormous global platform that allows their brand to reach billions of people.  In this regard, a sponsorship of the Olympic Games is no different to buying hundreds of billboards and television advertisements around the world for two weeks.  

Is it just advertising?

Should the Olympic Games make themselves available to be that platform?  Probably not, and in an ideal world, the sponsors that the IOC sought out would be a better fit to the Olympic ideals.  But I don't see the link between McDonald's and the Olympic Games as any more than a commercial transaction, and it does not, by my reading, lean on the Olympic ideals and try to portray a message to the general public that capitalises on "Olympism".   

If McDonald's tried to leverage their association with the IOC and came out with a series of advertisements similar to those of say, Powerade, where they made claims about being the ideal food for elite athletes, or if elite athletes started endorsing Big Macs, then it is another story, and they should be condemned for that.  But right now, it seems more like advertising, and I think if the public reads into this, then we should be looking in the mirror, because when a company like McDonald's spends millions on advertising, it is because they want to talk to "us".  

We create the market, we create the "monster" that is then fed through advertising and sales.  Our "appetite" allows them to invest in the Olympic Games to begin with. 

So bottom line, the presence of a fast-food chain at the event that epitomises atleticism is surreal and probably inappropriate.  But whether this is sending out a tangible message that helps cause obesity, I'd question. 

Dr Ross Tucker, is Health24’s FitnessDoc and has a Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology from the University of Cape Town and a Post-Graduate degree in Sports Management from the UCT's Faculty of Commerce. He is currently employed at the University of Cape Town and Sports Science Institute of South Africa, and works as a consultant to various sporting teams, including South African Sevens, Canoeing, Rowing and Triathlon SA. He also blogs on

(Health24, July 2012)

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