Olympians called on to renounce McDonald's sponsorship

McDonald's is one of the chief corporate sponsors of the Olympics, but a group of advocates are calling on US medalists to renounce McDonald's endorsement deals. 

Gene J. Puskar/AP/File
The McDonald's Golden Arches logo on a window at a McDonald's restaurant in Robinson Township, An advocacy group has penned an open letter calling on Olympic athletes renounce their McDonald's sponsorships.

The “official restaurant” of the Olympics is officially feeling the pressure: According to We Are Social, less than one percent of tweets mentioning McDonald’s in relation to Sochi were positive. The overwhelming critique, raised by 35 percent of these McDonald’s-focused social media comments? The brand that drives the epidemic of obesity has no place in the world’s most elite athletic event.

We couldn’t agree more. That’s why on Wednesday Corporate Accountability International launched this open letter calling on Olympic medalists to  publicly renounce McDonald’s sponsorship. What does it mean for the world’s largest purveyor of burgers and fries to be the official restaurant of the world’s most high-profile sporting event?

It means that if you were in Sochi right now, you’d see two 24-hour McDonald’s within the Olympic Village, along with a new McDonald’s playground “dedicated to the children of Sochi.” It means that if you turned on your TV to NBC right now, in moments you’d see an ad telling you that “the greatest victories are celebrated with a bite” of a chicken McNugget. It means that if you were a high-visibility athlete talented enough to win a gold medal, you’d likely get a call from McDonald’s mere seconds after finishing your race.

Most importantly, it means if you were a child watching your favorite Olympic athlete scarf a Big Mac, you’d probably want a Big Mac too.

As the largest global fast food chain and the most prolific marketer to children, no brand has played a more visible role in what experts call today’s epidemic of diet-related disease than McDonald’s. Its exploitation of athletes and athletic institutions is yet another way the corporation takes advantage of children. And when a child’s role model is the one touting the unhealthy brand, this marketing is even more insidious.

McDonald’s has been sponsoring the Olympics since the 1960s. Much like it does with hospitals and charity, the corporation exploits the positive associations with the Olympics to deflect criticism around the health impacts of its products. By aligning itself with the success of high-profile athletic institutions and athletes,  McDonald’s earns an undeserved association with athleticism. This insidious marketing tactic misleads people, especially children, to believe the brand is like their Olympic role models: trustworthy, fun, and healthy.   

In particular, McDonald’s works to build this association and brand loyalty among communities of color, while at the same time these communities suffer from staggering rates of diet related disease. For instance, in 2012, gymnast Gabby Douglas became one of the brand’s biggest promoters, claiming to have eaten there after winning her Gold in London. Shani Davis, this year’s speed skating favorite, has already begun his promotion of McDonald’s, stating he’ll eat it when he’s an old man and promoting the brand’s (failed) #CheersToSochi hashtag. And the Olympian and NBA star LeBron James makes an estimated US$42 million a year in endorsements off his celebrity.

But the tide is turning among elite athletes like Olympians, who increasingly recognize that athletic achievement should not be associated with fast food. Olympians Amir Khan and Jamie Anderson have taken a public stand against McDonald’s cooptation of the Games. As the Olympics come to a close, Olympic athletes have a platform and opportunity right now to be the role models their fans truly deserve by rejecting sponsorship deals with McDonald’s.

From the astounding number of people tweeting about the conspicuous irony of McDonald’s sponsoring the Games to the more than 7,000 people who signed this petition within the first 24 hours of its launch, the public supports athletes in taking that stand. Join us: add your name to the petition and ask athletes to be champions for children.

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