Payne: If You Eliminate McDonald's and Coca-Cola from Sponsoring Olympics, Where Do You Stop?

Michael Payne, the International Olympic Committee’s former marketing director, yesterday argued on television that it would be “game over” for the Olympics without controversial sponsors such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Cadbury’s and Heineken, because alternative multinational companies that could step in to take their places and that would raise no health or other concerns simply do not exist.

Payne was appearing on the nightly Newsnight programme broadcast by the BBC, the UK’s public-service broadcaster, to defend the four companies cited against charges that they contribute to the worldwide obesity crisis and are therefore not suitable sponsors for the games.

The BBC presenter said that the organising committee for this summer’s games in London and the International Olympic Committee had been asked to provide a spokesman to participate in the debate, but that both had declined.

The programme opened with the presenter suggesting that the games’ motto of ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ should perhaps be replaced with ‘Fatter, Slower, Unhealthier.’ It featured a London cardiologist who cited statistics suggesting that by 2050, 90 per cent of the UK population will be overweight, while treating obesity will cost £50 billion ($77.5 billion) a year.

In such a context, the cardiologist claimed that it was “obscene” that the Olympic Games choose to associate themselves with fatty foods, sugary drinks and alcohol. The connection, he said, “sends a terrible message.”

However, Payne defended the IOC and its sponsors on two main grounds. He argued that:

   1. Companies such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola have changed their policies towards healthy eating in recent years, in part as a result of pressure from the IOC. So McDonald’s introduced salads to the menus in its restaurants and Coca-Cola now offers a much wider range of drinks, including low-calorie and sports drinks. Both companies are also involved in active living campaigns. Speaking at a conference earlier this year, Joe Tripodi, Coca-Cola's chief marketing and commercial officer, said: "Move to the beat, getting people up to move, getting people active. That's what this is all about: using our marketing machine to help people, particularly young people, see the value of exercise and a balanced lifestyle."

   2. Once the IOC starts eliminating companies because of undesirable associations, where does it stop? Payne suggested, for example, that it would have to drop airline and car sponsors because of their effect on the environment, and sportswear sponsors because of their record of using sweatshops in India to produce their clothing.

Payne added: “These [sponsors’] programmes are getting kids active; it’s governments that are cutting back. The companies to step in don’t exist. If the IOC took that position [of eliminating sponsors because of undesirable associations], there wouldn’t be any companies left. It’s game over – no Olympics.”

Payne now acts as a sports industry consultant, with clients including Formula 1 motor racing.

Meanwhile, Jacques Rogge, the IOC’s president, has played down a report that he said that there was a “question mark” over the involvement of sponsors such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola in the Olympics because of obesity concerns.

Rogge was reported to have challenged the companies to help address the global obesity crisis before deciding to renew their contracts to act as top-tier TOP sponsors of the Olympic Games.

He told the Financial Times newspaper: “We’ve said to them: ‘Listen, there is an issue in terms of the growing trend on obesity, what are you going to do about that?’”

Rogge was reported to have said that renewing McDonald’s sponsorship deal was “not an easy decision,” but that the introduction of healthier meal options in its restaurants and Coca-Cola’s zero-sugar variants on its products had helped convince the IOC that the companies were taking their public health responsibilities seriously.

However, Rogge told Reuters that he wished to “clarify” the statements attributed to him, adding: “The IOC hugely values the long-term sponsorship and support of both McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. Through the years we have personally witnessed the positive impacts that they make as TOP sponsors.

“Both companies bring forward the spirit of the Olympic Games through creative and engaging global programmes that promote physical activity and the values that the Olympic Games are all about.”

Earlier this year, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, a UK doctors group, criticised the companies as it launched a six-month investigation into the causes and effects of obesity, describing their role as Olympic sponsors as “most unhelpful.”

McDonald’s has four restaurants in London’s Olympic Park, including its biggest in the world, which can seat 1,500 people.

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