My first truly memorable Olympic moment is an epic one. Just a few years before the Cold War began to thaw, the Americans were skating their hearts out against the Soviets in arguably the most famous hockey match of all time. I was as tense as if I were watching a Giants game (and anyone who truly knows me knows I have only missed one Giants game since those Olympics, so you can imagine just how tense I was), crouching behind my mother’s rocking chair and peeking over the arm to see if we really could beat those big, bad Russians. When we did, and Al Michaels asked if I believed in miracles, I said it out loud. “Yes, I believe in miracles!” And my brothers and sister and I jumped up and down as if the Giants had won the Super Bowl.
(In our house, the Super Bowl is a much bigger deal than the Olympics. But I digress.)
The next time the Olympics rolled around, I was old enough to compete in them. Not that I was equipped in any other possible way to compete in them, but seeing the likes of Scott Johnson, Mary Lou Retton and Peter Vidmar flying high in the gymnastics competitions inspired me to imagine that if they could do amazing things like flip four times in midair and land on their feet, well then, metaphorically at least, I could too.
The Olympics are intended to bring out the best in us, and especially in our young people. They cause us to take pride in our own nation while celebrating cultures from around the world. They inspire awe and an appreciation for discipline, beauty, and grace. They promote teamwork, sportsmanship, and give kids (and adults) fodder for dreams to achieve excellence.
And they have always been a celebration of health and fitness, a model for our youth to appreciate and emulate.
So how is it that the games’ major sponsors are some of the worst offenders when it comes to contributing to a decidedly unfit Western world?
Coca-Cola and McDonald’s are two of the games’ biggest sponsors – McDonald’s is so big, in fact, that the only French fries you can purchase in the Olympic compound in London are the ones produced by the Golden Arches. (Fries which, as my Chick-Fil-A piece last week pointed out, are just stick-figure shadows of their former potato selves.)
It’s not hard to figure out why these companies would choose to sponsor such a huge event. We all know that advertising, bottom line, is designed to get us to open our wallets and spend our money. And to be able to reach a captive audience of billions of people worldwide for the better part of a month is probably worth spending a mere $100 million.
Even better, though, is a platform that gets people to open their wallets again and again over the course of many decades. You do this best by imprinting your message on impressionable young minds.
Get ‘em while they’re young.
Watching the Olympics with our kids is a time honored tradition, because of all the noble and positive things about them. McDonald’s knows the kids will be watching, and it’s the company that paved the way for the idea of marketing to children back in the 1960’s. Founder Ray Kroc said, “A child who loves our TV commercials and brings her grandparents to a McDonald’s gives us two more customers.” Of course, the intent was not just to get the parents on board, but to develop brand loyalty in that child for life. This works best when you start with the children, because they are so easy to persuade. And because even when they are older and able to clearly separate fact from fiction, they are still prone to be driven by deep seated impulses planted many years before.
(The Dollar Menu concept, you see, only works when you fork over many dollars, over many years.)
It’s very clear that hooking kids early and often is exactly what McDonald’s does. Ronald McDonald the clown is obviously not designed to bring adults in the door (although clearly, he does – because the adults who eat there were once children). The playgrounds are extremely inviting. The Happy Meal concept, pioneered by McDonald’s, offers toys connected with popular pop figures that appeal to children, often in sets that encourage them to return to collect all the pieces. Birthday parties are made easy at McDonald’s, where you can even use their paper products and party goods. McDonald’s pays to have their products featured in children’s films, and on products used in schools, such as notebooks and crayons. This is all well documented, and discussed at great length elsewhere.
And all this is bad enough. But when a corporate logo and presence become even more deeply embedded in our subconscious, and in a more subtle way, it can be worse than these sorts of in your face appeals. I believe that the Olympic sponsorship (which has been going on for many Olympic games now) is really a way to create a very particular impression about the “real” cause of obesity in the minds of all of us, but especially in the minds of our children. And the impression is, “It’s not McDonald’s fault.”
Ever since Morgan Spurlock’s “SuperSize Me” debuted nearly ten years ago, McDonald’s has had to deal with the bad publicity surrounding the obvious negative effects that its food has on the human body. Marketing executives work overtime to create the spin that there is a place for this food in a healthy diet, that there are healthier options on the menu, and that McDonald’s really isn’t one of the primary causes of our society’s obesity crisis.
Even better than fighting back about the lack of quality in a product, though, is diverting our attention from it. Put McDonald’s products up there alongside Olympic athletes long and often enough, and okay… maybe as a thinking adult you are too smart to draw the ridiculous conclusion that eating a Big Mac will make you fit. But it just might be possible to have you believe that the solution to dropping those excess pounds doesn’t have anything to do with what you eat, but with the fact that you’re not exercising enough. Just exercise more, and you can eat whatever you want.
I find it curious that many adults believe this is true. In fact, I used to be one of them. For most of my adult life, I was significantly overweight, if not obese. I bought into the lie that as long as one is active, it doesn’t matter what food we eat. And there was a long stretch of time when I ate a lot of McDonald’s products, telling myself I’d walk off the calories once I got home.
But that’s not how it works at all. Fitness begins with what we eat. I’ve read quite a few articles profiling the breakfasts and other meals of our Olympic champions, and here’s a quick sample of some of the foods that go into the bodies of these remarkable athletes: coconut milk, goji berries, cacao powder, flax seed, acai berries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, spinach, kale, Greek yogurt, bee pollen, honey, grilled chicken, almond butter, raisins, ground flaxmeal, walnuts, kiwi, fish, eggs, steak, carrots, almond milk, edamame, quinoa, green beans, oatmeal, turkey sandwiches on whole grain bread, bagels, salsa, protein shakes, salads, and green smoothies.
The athletes don’t eat these kind of foods by accident. Food – real food – is fuel for our bodies. When we feed ourselves fake food, we don’t have the proper fuel to make us want to exercise, or for any attempts at exercise to be particularly effective. It’s a vicious cycle. Exercise isn’t supposed to be something we do to undo the bad we’ve done, like eating foods on the athletes’ “avoid” lists: refined sugars, mayonnaise, processed foods, packaged foods, and fast food.
Exercise is meant to be what our bodies want to do, when we feed them the right foods.
While most of us adults consciously get the message that there is no clear connection between fast food and athletic success, subliminal messages are harder to quantify. It’s easy for otherwise very intelligent adults to make the inference that, well, THAT guy looks great, and he’s eating a Big Mac. If it doesn’t hurt him, maybe if I just go play some basketball, it won’t hurt me… much.
And if adult brains can rationalize these things, imagine what havoc these images wreak on the brains of our children – especially a child under the age of 8, who isn’t able to make clear delineations between fact and fiction. He just may come away thinking that a French fry is a nutrient rich potato, a healthy carb that will help bring his dreams of Olympic glory to life. As long as he gets off the couch and works out, too.
Consciously, I can’t remember as a child viewing a McDonald’s ad with a positive image of Olympic greatness. But I’m certain that somewhere, mixed in with Mary Lou Retton’s gold medals and our Cold War victory, I was led to believe that it’s not what we eat, but rather how we move, that matters.
I can only hope our young people today somehow filter that part out, and focus instead on striving for excellence – in physical pursuits, mental pursuits, and what they choose to put in their bodies.
© 2012 The Wellness Wordsmith
The Wellness Wordsmith is busy putting the final touches on some new and exciting products to help wellness pros grow your practices. And once that’s finished, she’s going on vacation. For the next two weeks, please expect me to direct you to someone else’s clever thoughts about a currently relevant topic in the world of food and politics. My next piece will be up on August 25.