Reuters

Londoners are often singularly skeptical toward corporate sponsorship, as the latest fight over McDonald's shows.

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.

Olympics 2012 bug
London gets ready for the Summer Games See full coverage

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.

Photo courtesy Liberate Tate

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

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: Developer James Rouse visiting Harborplace in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
    Life

    What Happened to Baltimore’s Harborplace?

    The pioneering festival marketplace was among the most trendsetting urban attractions of the last 40 years. Now it’s looking for a new place in a changed city.

  2. photo: San Diego's Trolley
    Transportation

    Out of Darkness, Light Rail!

    In an era of austere federal funding for urban public transportation, light rail seemed to make sense. Did the little trains of the 1980s pull their own weight?

  3. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

  4. Design

    Before Paris’s Modern-Day Studios, There Were Chambres de Bonne

    Tiny upper-floor “maids’ rooms” have helped drive down local assumptions about exactly how small a livable home can be.

  5. Equity

    What ‘Livability’ Looks Like for Black Women

    Livability indexes can obscure the experiences of non-white people. CityLab analyzed the outcomes just for black women, for a different kind of ranking.

×