McDonald's is a sponsor for the London Olympics — and a British doctors' group says that's sending the wrong message in a country with ballooning obesity.
Big Macs, fries and milkshakes will be part of McDonald's exclusively branded menu at the Olympics and the fast-food giant will soon be opening its largest franchise in the world, a two-story cathedral-like restaurant that seats 1,500 customers, at London's Olympic Park. McDonald's will be the only restaurateur allowed to sell brand-name food at the Games and there will also be a separate McDonald's within the Athletes Village — in addition to three others at the Olympic Park.
Alongside McDonald's, Coca-Cola has the exclusive right to sell non-alcoholic drinks at Olympic venues. Heineken has been named the Games' official beer.
"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," said Terence Stephenson, a spokesman for the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges. The group is calling upon the British government to restrict advertising by McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Heineken during the Olympic Games, which are being held in London from July 27 to Aug.12.
But that's unlikely to happen. London Olympic organizers have defended their decision to accept McDonald's sponsorship as a business deal.
"Sponsors provide a huge amount of the funding required to stage the games," said a London 2012 spokesman in a statement. "Without our partners such as McDonald's, the games simply wouldn't happen."
About one-quarter of Britons are obese and experts estimate that could jump to half by 2030. Obesity and related health ailments cost the U.K. health system about 4 billion pounds ($6.5 billion) every year.
"These brands are using the Olympics to be associated with medals and svelte, fit athletes," he said. "They don't want us to think of fat, unhealthy people when we think of their products."
Britain is also battling an increasing alcohol problem, which experts warned could worsen during the Olympics.
"When any major sporting event has an official alcohol supplier, it sends out completely the wrong messages to young people, making it seem as though no major event is complete without alcohol," said Sir Ian Gilmore, special adviser to the Royal College of Physicians on alcohol.
He said he "greatly regretted" that the London Olympics had appointed an official beer.
Some experts said advertising during the Olympics could actually cause a spike in fast food consumption, even in people not inclined to eat it.
"We cannot simply decide not to process (an ad), there is a subliminal association that is made that may affect your behavior in the future," said Nilli Lavie, a professor of psychology and brain sciences at University College London.
McDonald's said in a statement they expected about one-in-10 people visiting London's Olympic Park to eat at their Golden Arches. The company has been an official Olympics sponsor since 1976 and said it would be using its expertise to provide "high-quality British food" at the Games.
Stephenson of the doctor's group doubts if many of the competing athletes would have an appetite for the cheeseburgers, fries, and chicken nuggets that will be ubiquitous at the Games' venues.
"I'm not sure how many of them will be eating this kind of food before competing for a medal," he said.