Sports and junk food may seem like polar opposites but when it comes to advertising, the two have a long history together. Coca Cola has sponsored the FIFA World Cup since 1978, Usain Bolt credited chicken nuggets for his record-breaking 2013 sprints, and athletes have been appearing in junk food ads for years.
But now, the biggest fast food brand in the world has announced that it will be cutting ties with the biggest sporting event in the world. After 41 years of sponsoring Olympic Games around the world, McDonald's has pulled out of its contract—three years before Tokyo 2020 takes place.
McDonald's has been involved with the Olympics since 1968, when it flew burgers to US athletes in France. The company became an official sponsor in 1976, providing food for spectators in the Olympic Park and for athletes in the Olympic Village. But then last week, it announced that, after its commercial involvement in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, the Golden Arches and the Olympic rings would not be seen together again.
So, why has Maccy D's ended the partnership after more than four decades? In a statement to MUNCHIES, Silvia Lagnado, global chief marketing officer of McDonald's Corp, said: "As part of our global growth plan, we are reconsidering all aspects of our business and have made this decision in cooperation with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to focus on different priorities."
Lagnado continued: "We have been proud to support the Olympic Movement, and we thank our customers and staff, the spectators, athletes, and officials, as well as the IOC and local Olympics Games organising committees, for all of their support over the years."
While athletes may mourn the loss of free nuggets and fries in the Olympic Village (demand was so high at last year's Rio Games that food orders had to be limited to 20 items per person), it's sure to be welcome news to health campaigners. Despite McDonald's' apparent popularity among sports men and women, public health groups have always been highly critical of the Olympics' close relationship with the fast food giant. Last year, the Children's Food Campaign branded the Rio Games "a carnival of junk food marketing."
MUNCHIES reached out to Malcolm Clark, co-ordinator of the Children's Food Campaign, to get the charity's take on McDonald's pulling sponsorship of future Olympic Games.
Clark told us: "After the 'Obesity Games' in London in 2012, and the 'carnival of junk food marketing' in Rio last year, it would be welcome if the Tokyo 2020 Olympics become known instead for the promotion of healthier practices and brands. But even with McDonald's move, there are still plenty of brands keen to associate their sugary or fatty products with the glamour of a major sporting event and with the athletes and sports stars themselves."
Academic studies and national food policy recommendations have both shown that restricting junk food marketing encourages healthier food choices. The Liverpool-based European Healthy Stadia Network works with this in mind, helping sports clubs across Europe to promote healthy choices in stadiums by limiting junk food advertising and improving catering facilities. Robin Ireland, director of research, told MUNCHIES why he thinks sports and fast food have gone hand-in-hand for so long.
Ireland said: "Primarily of course, food brands sponsor sporting events to sell their products. It is not their concern if their products are healthy, nor if their biggest consumers are young children and teenagers. The companies seek to benefit from a 'feel good' factor and an impression that you can safely use their products as long as you take part in lots of sport. The current levels of childhood obesity would seek to indicate however, that you would have to do 'Olympic' levels of sport to burn off the excess calories from regular consumption of junk food."
And on McDonald's withdrawing from the Olympics, he commented: "Public health will welcome the announcement that McDonald's will no longer be sponsoring the Olympics. It has never felt appropriate that our most popular sports and events are often used by the food and drink industry to promote products which are high in sugar and fat: the type of products which are most strongly linked with obesity, and associated conditions such as Type 2 diabetes."
The International Olympics Committee has said in a press release that it has "no immediate plans to appoint a direct replacement in the retail food operations sponsorship category." It was announced yesterday that computer company Intel would replace McDonald's as the Olympics global sponsor until 2024.
It seems that for the next two Olympics, a different kind of chip will be promoted.