Maybe hamburgers and athletics don’t go together after all. While global fast food empire McDonald's has just built its largest outlet ever in London’s Olympic Park, even the International Olympic Committee is now questioning whether the company makes a suitable sponsor for the world’s largest sporting event. Interviewed in the Financial Times this past weekend, IOC president Jacques Rogge admitted there was a "question mark" over the courting of unhealthy fast food purveyors as Olympic sponsors, acknowledging public unease at how rare it feels nowadays to view a major sporting event without seeing adverts for junk plastered all over it.
Rogge’s comments come on the back of a McDonald’s-bashing motion recently passed in the London Assembly, the British capital’s main governing body. Proposed by Green Party leader Jenny Jones – who gained record votes to become London’s third choice for mayor in May – the motion called for a ban on sporting sponsors that are linked to childhood obesity. The motion’s supporters pointed out that while TV ads for unhealthy food aimed at children are forbidden in Britain, daytime Olympic coverage full of McDonald's and Coca-Cola logos could break this ban via the back door.
As advertising is not permitted inside competition venues, however, this shouldn’t actually happen, while the motion’s influence is limited anyway – despite slightly misleading coverage by Time, the London Assembly lacks real power to implement what it proposes.
The move does still highlight the often singularly skeptical attitude to corporate sponsorship in Britain. Until recently, private money always played second fiddle to government cash in underwriting arts and culture, and there is more public ambivalence in the U.K. about courting big business cash than in America. This ambivalence sometimes bubbles up into protest and damaging publicity. Last weekend, the Tate Modern, a participant in London’s Cultural Olympiad, came under fire for its relationship with British Petroleum when protesters carried a 16-meter long, half ton wind turbine blade into the gallery’s vast entrance hall and left it as a gift.
McDonald's has also learned the hard way that Britain can be a hostile environment for corporate promotion. Back in the '90s, the company got involved in the worst PR disaster in its history here when it sued environmental protesters during the notorious McLibel Case and found its working practices and healthy eating claims subjected to prolonged, excruciating scrutiny.
There is evidence that this sort of scrutiny is shaping McDonald's working practices, at least while the Games spotlight is upon them. Caving to pressure from the London Olympic Committee, the company agreed this spring to use only British chicken at its four Olympic Park outlets. Likewise the outlets themselves – including one monster 1,500-seater – will use 75 percent recyclable materials and will convert their no doubt plentiful supplies of used cooking oil into Biodiesel.
This is encouraging, though less so when you remember that Olympic spectators will have no other food choices unless they choose to leave the Olympic Park. Given that organizers are recommending ticket holders arrive two and a half hours before events to clear airport style security (and that they’re not allowed to bring in food), this doesn’t sound like a valid option. Heavy-handed or not, there’s no denying that the funds brought in by this sort of exclusive sponsorship deal are substantial. But when criticism comes even from Olympic partners – I suspect angry phone calls are now being exchanged between McDonald's and the IOC – the public attention such deals earn sponsors may increasingly taste bittersweet.
Photo credit: Eddie Keogh/Reuters