In the midst of a global epidemic of adult and childhood obesity, it is time for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to reject sponsorship from manufacturers of junk food and sugary beverages and harness the power of the Olympic brand in support of health and longevity.

Faster Higher Sicker

Big food, big soda, big sponsorships

At the 2016 Rio Olympics the world’s most recognized junk food and sugary beverage manufacturers take top billing as two of twelve “Worldwide Olympic Partners.” According to the International Olympic Committee, “the Olympic Games are one of the most effective international marketing platforms in the world, reaching billions of people in over 200 countries and territories.” Depending on sponsorship level, companies are entitled to marketing rights in various regions, including category exclusivity and the use of coveted trademarks and images. The financial details of sponsorship deals are “confidential commercial information,” but there is no doubt that big food and big soda are investing millions in Olympic sponsorships and associated advertising campaigns.

Why we should end junk food and sugary beverage sponsorship of the Olympics

While there are some great things about the Olympics (I was particularly impressed by the inclusion of the Refugee Olympic Team), the Olympics provides a unique and effective platform for companies to market junk food and sugary beverages. This contributes to the global obesity epidemic and conflicts with the values of Olympism.

Calorie-dense nutrient-poor options, including junk food and sugary beverages are key contributors to worldwide obesity, which has more than doubled since 1980. Sophisticated and pervasive marketing techniques, including advertising, sponsorship, brand mascots, and point-of-purchase displays influence our food preferences and our consumption patterns. Children are particularly vulnerable to marketing, with research revealing strong associations between increases in junk food advertising and childhood obesity rates.

Providing a platform for marketing harmful products does not fit with the values of the Olympic Movement. The fundamental principles of Olympism refer to “exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind,” “social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles,” and “promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

Could we really have an Olympics without big food and big soda?

Yes, I think it’s possible, and here are some reasons why:

  • The Olympic Games have not been sponsored by a tobacco manufacturer since 1984. This shows that it is possible to stop taking funds from generous, long-time funding sources.
  • Most of the 12 Worldwide Olympic Partners are not food and beverages companies. They include an IT company, a well-known tire and rubber manufacturer, a major credit card company, and multiple electronics brands. This suggests that there are lots of companies interested in and willing to contribute to the large amount of funding required to stage the Olympics.

Should we go even further?

In addition to rejecting sponsorship from manufacturers of junk food and sugary beverages, I’m looking forward to the day when these products are replaced with healthier alternatives at all Olympic events. For many of the same reasons, the Olympics should no longer designate an “official beer” and national sports teams should end sponsorship arrangements with manufacturers of alcohol, junk food, and sugary beverages.

Disassociating the Olympics with unhealthy products such as tobacco, alcohol, and unhealthy foods and beverages will not solve epidemics of obesity and chronic diseases, but it would harness the power of the Olympic brand in support of health and longevity.