Friday, July 27, 2012

All it needs is Muttley and I'll be happy

Where would Britain be without something to moan about, eh? We Brits will complain in winter that the snow's too cold, too wet, too white or that it hasn't turned up at all, and then moan about it snowing in spring.

Which is when we start to complain that summer has arrived early because there's a hosepipe ban in force barely weeks after the blizzards have all melted away. And when summer - that notional period of sunshine from the end of June to early September - is supposed to be in play, we'll moan about it feeling more like autumn.

You really can't please some people. And you certainly can't please us islanders.

It's been little surprise that a nailed-on opportunity for national glee like the London 2012 games, which open tonight, if you hadn't noticed, has been met by a barrage of Olympic-strength kvetching.

I think it began in 2003 when the bid preparation began and only intensified when 'Jolly' Jacques Rogge announced "Lon-don" as host city of the 30th Olympiad on July 6, 2005, and immediately set about block-booking the best hotel rooms in town.

We've had a go at the stadium, the Olympic Village, Stratford Tube station, security guards, David Beckham, the Team GB costumes, Zil lanes, ticket allocations - there's a long list more (just go to the Daily Mail website for the full catalogue).

I've got to admit, I've not been entirely innocent. I have cast aspersions on Heathrow Airport's ability to handle all the participants and tourists, and London's ability to transport them.

I have also thrown a cheeky shot at the seemingly excessive security measures which involves ground attack jet fighters, anti-aircraft missiles, helicopter-borne snipers and, I think, secretly trained javelin and discus throwers with instructions to down any rogue aircraft, or pigeons, seagulls and sparrows.

But for the most part I am immensely proud to see my home city and my home country, a nation that has given the world some of its greatest culture, putting on its best show in anyone's living memory.

It will be big, bold, brash and colourful - everything that London is.The music will be everything from The Beatles to The Chemical Brothers, which should be a laugh if played during dope testing sessions. And so what if it is being led by the preposterously comical Boris Johnson and Seb Coe, the former Olympic champion and now a politician so slick he makes David Cameron look positively sloppy.

If I may, however, I have two gripes that I must get off my chest. Actually, one I have to get off my stomach: I don't dismiss the need for events like the Olympics to attract sponsors.

In fact, without sponsors London 2012 would be staged at Haringey Dog Track, with the swimming events at the Wandsworth Common lido, and all other field events on the football pitches on Wanstead Flats.

What I do question is the role of companies like Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Cadbury's and Heineken in supporting at least the first two clauses in the Olympic Charter, which are:

  1. Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.
  2. The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.

Earlier this month, London-based cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra presented a piece on the BBC's Newsnight in which he called upon the International Olympic Committee to rethink its touting of companies like Coca-Cola and McDonalds - companies associated with obesity, whether they like it or not.

As someone who has succumbed to middle-aged spread, and then some, and who has battled with their weight for many years, I do find it absurd to see these corporations so prominently paraded on the world stage for sporting events.

Of course, you will otherwise not escape such brands from TV advertising or posters on bus shelters, but by cynically associating themselves with the Games to the extent they are seen as integral to both the Games' successful execution as well as the Olympic spirit, they are pushing the belief that their products are healthy.

I wouldn't surmise that Coke Zero - my soft drink beverage of choice, if anyone is throwing some sponsorship money around - or the occasional Big Mac is going to kill anyone. But, as an overweight person, I know how that cretinous adage "everything in moderation" just doesn't work.

Dr Malhotra's Newsnight piece noted that in the Borough of Newham, where the London 2012 Olympic Village is located, there has been a doubling of cases of diabetes over the last ten years. In parts of the developing world, where traditional diets are being replaced by the homogeneity of generic, commoditised global-brand junk food, similar growth rates of diabetes have been observed.

In Newham, but also Bangalore, Shenzen, Nairobi, wherever, the proliferation of fast food outlets has had a measurable impact on local health, as so-called 'lifestyle diseases' like diabetes, heart disease and cancer take a hold. 35 million of us will die each year as a result of these conditions.

You can read more about Dr. Malhotra's report here, but I couldn't agree with him more. "Of course the Olympic sponsors cannot be held accountable for Britain's poor health," he concludes, "but their connection with the Games sends a dreadful message. In the context of an obesity epidemic I find it obscene that the Olympics chooses to associate itself with fast food, sugary drinks, chocolate and alcohol."

As a fat person, then, am I just weak-willed? Am I just unable to control myself? Well, yes. Self-will is the only way to lose weight and maintain it, practising the very simple equation of 'calories in must be equal or less than calories out'.

I have my own reasons for being overweight, but the point of this argument is that placing a burger brand or a sugary drink in the context of healthy, sporting endeavour creates normality that is not matched by those who will be sucked in by these companies' advertising, which presents healthy-looking people consuming nutritious, satisfying meals and refreshing beverages, rather than the morbidly obese that over consume them, either because they can't help it, or regard such cheap and quick fare as normal to wolf down before ordering another.

Of course, the IOC and their sponsors strenuously deny any wrongdoing and have put up a typically sterling line of defence.The IOC said that it: "...only enters into partnerships with organisations that it believes work in accordance with the values of the Olympic Movement", holding "...a duty on behalf of all of the stakeholders in the Olympic Movement to consider this partnership very carefully, particularly where we enter partnerships on a long term basis."

Coca-Cola said that it had been an Olympic partner since 1928 and "...has an outstanding heritage in supporting the Olympic Movement, and promoting the Olympic Games and active, healthy lifestyles to billions of consumers, pointing out that it sponsors more than 250 physical activity and nutrition education programs in more than 100 countries, "...and is committed to sponsoring a program in every country where it operates by the end of 2015."

The company also pointed out the range of drinks that it offers - "the widest range of drinks... ever offered at an Olympic Games, including sparkling and still, low- and no-calorie choices, juices, smoothies and water."

Across the other sponsors, corporate reputation managers spun a similar story, one of contributing to a healthy, balanced diet and the promotion of active lifestyles, all of which I know can coexist with the occasional Mickey-Ds visit, or the odd night out drinking pints of the beer that reaches parts that other beers can't reach.

But should such brands be foisted on the impressionable, the young or merely the weak-willed? Like, obviously, me? I just don't think so.

So what was my other issue? I would like to see, just once and nothing more, Muttley - Dick Dastardly's sidekick in Wacky Races and Dastardly And Muttley In Their Flying Machines, pitch up at the winner's podium over the next three weeks and say: "Gimme, gimme, gimme! Medal!" Just the once.

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