Breakfast of also-rans

What do McDonald's, Budweiser and other advanced nutritional supplements have to do with the Olympics?

Published August 9, 2008 10:00AM (EDT)

Commerce and sport are inextricably linked. Kobe and Tiger sell Nikes, Beckham hawks Adidas soccer gear, and O.J., in happier days, urged us all to rent cars from Hertz. Full disclosure: I work in marketing at Levi's, so I get it. It's called "borrowing equity." A brand's meaning is enhanced by the inherent qualities of the endorser.

Nike strives to stand for performance in consumers' minds, so getting the best basketball player to endorse its shoes reinforces its unique selling proposition. The idea is to induce the gullible consumer to part with his hard-earned cash in the hallucinatory hope that he might achieve Kobe-like greatness, or at the very least coolness, when he dons his Hyperdunks. Implicit in this reasoning is the assumption that Kobe actually wears Nikes and that these shoes are a key part of his accomplishment.

But what on earth does McDonald's have to do with Olympic achievement? Has Mickey D's ever led a great athlete to his proudest moment atop the podium? The fast-food retailer, a leading sponsor of these games, might strive to stand for the halcyon ideal of bringing American families together for a meal, but we all know what they're really about: making people fat. They started with Americans, but they've managed to export this unique skill set to 118 other countries across the globe.

A Double Quarter Pounder with cheese carries a hefty 740-calorie load. A distance runner burns about 100 calories a mile. So a high-level athlete could burn off his burger with a warm-up run in about half an hour. He might be a tad more sluggish than usual, so let's say 45 minutes. But add a large order of fries and the guy has to run another five miles to burn off the salty goodness. How much Olympic coverage would sedentary Joe Schmoe need to watch to scrape that burger from his protruding gut?

The Olympic Games elevate athletic achievement and human striving to phantasmagoric levels, all the while selling couch-potato complacency. These Olympics will set the record for revenue generation, topping each day with over 200 hours of air/online time, which means it would take a viewer almost five months to watch all of the available footage. Even if Dick and Jane weren't fatty McFatFats before that marathon of Olympic watching, they surely would be upon completion of this test of endurance.

What is McDonald's hoping to achieve? Do they think that by associating themselves with the games that people will suddenly, magically, believe that Big Macs are the breakfast of champions? That Michael Phelps achieved his ripped physique by shoving nuggets and fries down his gullet? Budweiser and Coke are also sponsors. When's the last time Nastia Liukin pounded a six-pack of weak beer before hopping on the balance beam and turning a back flip? Do you think Shawn Johnson gets all her stellar flipping energy from caffeinated sugar water?

What are these big brands hoping to glean from the association? An image of squeaky-clean American goodness wrapped in patriotic triumph? Do they really think we'll believe that these athletes are fueled by McBurgers and Bud?

I suppose it doesn't matter. For these corporate behemoths, the massive visibility and blunt association with jingoistic pride is more than enough to justify their multimillion-dollar investment. The point is that the Olympics are really all about money. Money for corporate America and money for the athletes that bring home the gold. The rest of us saps are simply being sold the opportunity to witness transcendent physical greatness, while kicking back with a greasy burger, super-size fries and an ice cold, piss-poor excuse for a lager.

By Jennifer Sey

Jennifer Sey is the author of "Chalked Up," her memoir about the ups and downs in internationally competitive gymnastics. She was the 1986 U.S. National Champion and a seven-time national team member.

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