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McDonald’s Becomes the Target of Olympic Food Fight

Ross Tucker
The Exchange

The learned doctors of Britain's Academy of Medical Royal Colleges have sharpened their asparagus spears and taken aim at McDonald's. In particular, the group is taking umbrage at the burger giant's status as the official restaurant of the London Olympic games.

"It's very sad that an event that celebrates the very best of athletic achievements should be sponsored by companies contributing to the obesity problem and unhealthy habits," Terence Stephenson, a spokesman for the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges, told the Associated Press.

[Related: Olympians Shannon Miller, Dan O'Brien and Summer Sanders join Y! Sports as Olympic analysts]

The AP article goes on to say that a quarter of Britons are obese, and up to 50% could be classified as such by 2030. No doubt, obesity is evolving into a global epidemic, and the Academy is asking the government to put restrictions on the advertising of McDonald's and other key Olympic sponsors such as Coke and Heineken.

And you can bet McDonald's is going to make a, ahem, healthy profit. It will be opening four stores around the venue -- one in the athletes' village. Another will be the chain's largest branch, capable of seating 1,500 people over two floors. Some 470 workers are expected to dole out 50,000 Big Macs, 100,000 servings of fries and 30,000 milkshakes.

The seeming impropriety of unhealthy brands sponsoring athletic endeavors is nothing new. Minnesota senator Al Franken saw the future coming in 1977 when he co-wrote the classic Little Chocolate Donuts sketch for Saturday Night Live, featuring John Belushi.

"I logged a lot of miles training for that day, and I downed a lot of donuts -- Little Chocolate donuts," said a cigarette-smoking Belushi, playing the role of Olympic track and field star. "They taste good and they've got the sugar I need to get me going in the morning."

The farce has become reality, and a necessary one, at almost every level of sports. Here in the U.S., there's no shortage of Little League baseball teams sporting Bob's Fat Burger or Sal's Pizzeria logos on their uniforms. We venture to guess that more than a few fish and chips stands in the U.K. may be fronting the uniform costs for youth soccer teams.

As for the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges' effort, it's late -- by decades. The AP noted that McDonald's has been an official Olympics sponsor since 1976. McDonald's itself said its first "commitment to the Olympic Movement began in 1968, when the company airlifted hamburgers to U.S. athletes in Grenoble, France, after they reported being homesick for American food." That's airlifted, as in a military operation, as opposed to burgers simply flown in on a commercial flight. In fact, London will mark McDonald's ninth consecutive involvement as the "Official Restaurant of the Olympic Games."

McDonald's kicked off 2012 by announcing it was extending its role in The Olympic Partner Program, or TOP, through 2020.

While the doctors may not be on board, the athletes certainly are. Dara Torres, a 12-time Olympic medalist, is currently McDonald's global ambassador for the burger chain's Champions of Play program, an effort to get families more involved with physical activity. (Insert eye roll here, we know.)

"As a customer and an athlete, I've personally benefited from McDonald's long history of supporting the Olympic Movement," said Torres in a press release. "In my role as global ambassador for McDonald's Champions of Play, I'm thrilled to join McDonald's in supporting active play and balanced eating."

Support is the key word. Athletes, and Olympic athletes in particular, need support, and it's often companies like McDonald's that can offer it. There's also little doubt that the line between sponsorship and endorsement of the sponsoring-product gets a little blurry.

Snickers has been another Olympic "snack food" sponsor. In 1992, The candy bar company offered a commercial showing how the magical health and energy characteristics of a Snickers could help propel a discus to the moon. Bang! Zoom!

Earlier this year, USA Water Polo announced that it had named Nestle Nesquik as its "official milk and recovery drink." Recovery drink?

"Low-fat chocolate milk has recently been touted as a workout recovery drink," reads the press release from USA Water Polo. "'A recovery drink such as low-fat Nesquik chocolate milk is a great recovery option for the USA Water Polo National Team athletes,' said Shawn Dolan, U.S. Olympic Committee Sport Dietitian. 'It is easy for them to grab between weights and a pool session or after a session before their next meal. The combination of carbohydrate, protein and fluid allows them to replenish and begin the adaptation process after a hard training session. And the athletes enjoy it!'"

To cherry pick one point of nutritional data, a 16-ounce bottle of Nesquik low-fat chocolate milk has 56 grams of sugar. If you're Michael Phelps and you train five hours every day and need to consume up to 10,000 calories to do so, then Nesquik, along with anything else you consume could be considered a "recovery" drink. But does your kid need 340 calories, 5 grams of fat and 320 milligrams of sodium mainlined into their system after a vigorous 20 minutes at the playground? Probably not.