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The Olympics' Mixed Messaging on Health

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Written in collaboration with Helen Knight

As the 2012 London Olympic Games continue this week, the world is coming together in a majestic cultural capital to celebrate athletic achievements made possible by extraordinary physical health. The opening ceremony on Friday night was extremely memorable and meaningful as well as creative and compelling, especially the tribute paid to Great Britain's National Health Service. After all, from a public health perspective, the Games represent an unparalleled opportunity to communicate the importance of fitness and nutrition to billions of people worldwide.

At the same time, commercial sponsorships by retailers selling junk food and soda threaten to undermine the powerful positive health message of the Games. McDonald's has the exclusive right to sell brand-name food at the Olympics. Coca-Cola and McDonald's have exclusive rights to sell non-alcoholic beverages. Cadbury's is the Official Treat Provider.

The total capacity of the 2012 Olympic venues is 700,000 people. These spectators will largely rely on food vendors at the Games for meals and refreshments. In fact, spectators are not allowed to bring their own food into Olympic venues unless it fits inside the single backpack or handbag that each person may carry. Meanwhile, junk food and soda will be within easy reach. The Olympic Park will host the largest McDonald's restaurant in the world. Half the size of a football field, the restaurant will serve 14,000 people per day, and consumers will also be able to purchase McDonald's products from its other three restaurants in the Park and the Athletes' Village.

With obesity and overweight dramatically on the rise across the globe, now more than ever the Olympic Games must communicate the value of a holistic approach to health -- both fitness and nutrition. While physical activity is critical for promoting health and achieving weight loss, studies have shown that caloric intake plays a greater role in weight gain than lack of exercise.

Today, over 1.4 billion people are overweight globally. In the United States, two-thirds of adults and one-third of children are overweight, and the United Kingdom has a similar profile in regard to this public health problem. As fast food outlets proliferate in low- and middle-income countries, obesity is becoming a major public health threat in those nations as well, and the rates are rising dramatically. In the United States alone, almost 20 percent of children ages 6-11 are obese, which is more than triple the rate from 30 years ago among this demographic group.

Significant overweight is linked with a wide range of health problems affecting almost every organ system. Every year, 2.8 million people die from obesity-related causes globally. Over two-thirds of the world's population now lives in countries where overweight-related health issues cause more deaths than underweight.

That is why this year the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which organizes the Games, has been criticized for selecting sponsors that are known for selling unhealthy foods and beverages. The Academy of Royal Medical Colleges, representing the UK's 200,000 doctors, has called for a ban on sporting events' sponsorship by companies that sell unhealthy foods like McDonald's and Coca-Cola. The London Assembly -- an elected body that provides oversight for the Mayor of London -- recently approved a motion requesting that the IOC "exclude food and drinks companies strongly associated with high calorie brands and products linked to childhood obesity" from sponsorship of future Olympic Games.

However, the outcry of London's governing body is unlikely to change the role of the food retail industry at the Olympic Games in the near future. McDonald's has been a sponsor of the Games since 1976, while Coca-Cola has had an ongoing relationship with the Games since 1928 -- longer than any other company. Both businesses have already renewed their sponsorships of this global sporting event through 2020 and are paying an estimated $100 million for their four-year partnerships.

According to the IOC, commercial partnerships make the Games financially viable. The eleven Olympic Partners, which include Coca-Cola and McDonald's, contributed $957 million to the IOC in the four years preceding and including the London Games. "Sponsors provide a huge amount of the funding required to stage the Games," a representative for the IOC has stated. "Without our partners such as McDonald's, the Games simply wouldn't happen."

But are Olympic sponsorships by food and beverage companies really appropriate at a marquee event celebrating physical fitness? Given the potential adverse health effects of mass marketing of unhealthy products to billions of people around the world, these sponsorships could have a supersized negative impact around the globe. A London Assembly member who sponsored the motion to restrict the vending of unhealthy foods at sporting events believes this to be the case. "We absolutely didn't need that money [for the London Olympics]," she told CNN. "We could have done it perhaps with a little less glitz, a little less dazzle. But we could have done it." Underscoring this point, a report released in July by the Children's Food Campaign estimates that corporate sponsorship represents less than 10 percent of the London Games' total funding and comprises only 2 percent of the total income of the International Olympic Committee.

Following the passage of the London Assembly's motion, the IOC president cited McDonald's healthier menu options and Coca-Cola's zero-calorie beverages as promising signs of these companies' commitment to addressing the global obesity epidemic. However, spectators eating at the Olympics will likely struggle to not exceed recommended daily caloric intake levels. According to CNN's calculations, an individual who dined exclusively at McDonald's over the 17 days of the Olympics -- eating a menu of both their burgers and their healthier choices like oatmeal, salads, and wraps -- would gain six pounds by the end of the Games on August 12.

Additionally, the impact of these food retailers' sponsorship at the Olympics is far more pervasive than the meals sold to the audience present at the Olympic Park. On television, online, and on their packaging, sponsors use their affiliation with the Olympic Games to market their products to billions of people globally, particularly youth. Cadbury is selling limited-edition chocolate bars. Coca-Cola has launched a youth-oriented Olympic marketing campaign featuring popular musicians. Regrettably, Olympic athletes who should be serving as role models in the fight against obesity are participating in the advertising of these unhealthy products. For instance, this year's soda sponsor of the Games assembled an "eight-pack" of Olympic and Paralympic athletes who are featured in the company's marketing materials. In recent years, public health campaigns in the U.S., the UK, and many other nations have focused on promoting healthy lifestyles among youth to combat obesity, but the impact of these messages is being diluted by athletes' endorsements of nutrient-poor products.

Advertising of unhealthy foods using the image of the Olympic Games pairs poor nutrition with an active lifestyle in the eyes of the consumer. For today's youth, this is a misleading message that the international community can ill-afford to convey. If the current global obesity trends continue, this may be the first generation of children who are not as healthy or do not live as long as their parents. The official 2012 Olympic Games slogan is: "Inspire a Generation." Given the current obesity epidemic worldwide, perhaps the most important way for the Olympic Games to inspire this generation is by championing both fitness and healthy nutrition.

The good news is that this year may represent a tipping point -- a change in social norms. While McDonald's and Coca-Cola have sponsored the Olympics for decades, only now is there growing public criticism about their role in the 2012 Games. Just as it took decades for public attitudes to change about the social unacceptability of tobacco use, so it will take time to modify perceptions and decrease consumption of junk foods and sugar-sweetened beverages. This year's global dialogue about unhealthy foods sold at the Olympic Games suggests increased awareness about the public health threat of obesity worldwide and the urgent need to take actions to address it now. Let's hope the next Olympic Games reflect this progress.

Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal, M.D., M.P.A. (ret.) is the Public Health Editor of the Huffington Post. She is also the Director of the Health and Medicine Program at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington, D.C., a Clinical Professor at Georgetown and Tufts University Schools of Medicine, and Chair of the Global Health Program at the Meridian International Center. Dr. Blumenthal served for more than 20 years in senior health leadership positions in the Federal government in the Administrations of four U.S. Presidents, including as Assistant Surgeon General of the United States, the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of Women's Health, as a White House Advisor on Health, as Chief of the Behavioral Medicine and Basic Prevention Research Branch and as Chair of the Health and Behavior Coordinating Committee at the National Institutes of Health. Admiral Blumenthal has received numerous awards including honorary doctorates and has been decorated with the highest medals of the US Public Health Service for her pioneering leadership and significant contributions to advancing health in the United States and worldwide. Named by the New York Times, the National Library of Medicine and the Medical Herald as one of the most influential women in medicine, Dr. Blumenthal is the recipient of the 2009 Health Leader of the Year Award from the Commissioned Officers Association and was named a Rock Star of Science by the Geoffrey Beene Foundation. To learn more about Susan Blumenthal, M.D., visit 4globalhealth.org.

Helen Knight, a rising senior at Yale University, served as a Health Policy Intern at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington, D.C.

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