Simon Kelner: Is this the thin end of the corporate potato wedge?

Kelner's view


It was a only a paragraph in yesterday's edition of i, and it appears to be a story of such little significance that, set aside global financial crisis, banking scandals and the departure of Chris Moyles from Radio 1, it is hardly worth drawing your attention to. The detail of the story is this: workers at the Olympic stadium have been granted dispensation to buy chips from a catering van.

There, I told you it wasn't an urgent piece of news. But beneath this rather trivial fact is a tale of such outrageous corporate hegemony and cultural imperialism that I feel it my duty to shine a torch, an Olympic torch even, on it. The reason the workers had a battle to get their chips was that the Olympics have been bought by McDonalds, and under the terms of their sponsorship deal no other food outlet at any of the 40 Games venues is allowed to sell chips. It's not enough that the biggest McDonalds in the world is being built in the Olympic Park: the small print of what the Games organisers call "sponsorship obligations" to the fast food giant means other caterers are not allowed to serve chips unless they come with other items.

The rule was relaxed to stop workmen building the stage for the opening ceremony downing tools, but it does seem to be the thin end of the potato wedge as far as corporate power is concerned. Chips with everything, but not with nothing. At last the deal allows visitors to the Games to sample traditional British accompaniments to their chips, like fish, or fried Mars Bars or curry. And they will be able to wash them down with a can of Coca-Cola or Heineken, two of the other main sponsors of the Games.

Those who have followed the Torch's progress through Britain will have noticed the dominant branding of Coca-Cola. I don't know whether those who lined the roads were prevented from drinking other types of fizzy drinks, but you can't help but question the wisdom of taking sponsorship money for a celebration of athletic achievement from companies whose products are not exactly consistent with fitness and health. As Jenny Jones, a Green Party representative on the London Assembly, put it, the Games will promote "a glut of sponsored messages for high calorie food and drink that are at odds with the Olympic ideal".

This is not a rant against the commercialisation of sport: that battle was won and lost a long time ago. This is simply to question whether we have ceded too much power to sponsors. Isn't it enough that McDonalds will sell millions of pounds' worth of fast food during the Games? Faster, Stronger, Higher? Fatter, Slower, Unhealthier might be more appropriate. And does anyone worry about the corporatisation of the Torch relay? Maybe it doesn't matter. And maybe, when the competition starts, it will all be about the athletes. In which case, disregard what I've just said. I've simply got a chip on my shoulder…


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