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Jim Lee: Olympic sponsors don't define athletes

Think McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Heineken and the obvious image that comes to mind is one of health and fitness. Or maybe not.

A doctor's group in England that is concerned about that nation's growing obesity problem says having sponsors including McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Heineken sends a wrong message.

"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," Terence Stephenson, a spokesman for the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges, told the Associated Press last week.

But putting on an Olympic-size event takes money, and according to the website Olympic.org, "Revenue generated by commercial partnerships accounts for more than 40 percent of Olympic revenues and partners provide vital technical services and product support to the whole of the Olympic Family."

What they get in return isn't quite as obvious. The companies like to think that the exposure translates into more customers and more for their bottom line. Tell that to Kodak, a sponsor of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing that has since gone bankrupt.

McDonald's and Coca-Cola were sponsors of those Olympic events as well. But the official beer of the 2008 Olympics was Budweiser. Apparently England is trying for a more upscale clientele with Heineken.

McDonald's, in fact, has been involved with the Olympics since 1976, and even earlier apparently embarked on a mission to provide emergency provisions to some athletes. According to Olympic.org, "At the 1968 Olympic Winter Games, McDonald's airlifted hamburgers to U.S. athletes competing in Grenoble, France, who reported they were homesick for McDonald's food."

In reality, there probably aren't many people who believe that Olympic athletes get their strength and endurance from a steady diet of Big Macs and Heinekens. The doctor's group protesting would have more solid ground for their complaint if the Olympics started putting a jumbo size order of fries at the finish line for the winner of each of the events, or if the winners on the podium hoisted a beer in celebration of their victory. If anything, showing that there is more to the athletes than the events they are competing in is probably a good thing. They are dedicated, hard-working and devote countless hours to training for the possibility of becoming known as the best in the world at their chosen sport, but they are also people who like to have a little fun and who struggle overcoming the same obstacles that the rest of us face every day.

Perhaps the knowledge that you can indulge yourself once in a while and still reach your ultimate goal is a good thing for all those folks who have tried to stick to an exercise regimen or who have attempted the latest diet fad.

Just because you happen to have fallen off the wagon once in your efforts doesn't mean that the total cause is lost. Just ask Michael Phelps.

The Baltimore swimmer won six gold and two bronze medals in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and followed that up with eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008. In 2010, he was sentenced to 18 months probation after pleading guilty to driving while impaired. Today, he's getting ready for this year's Olympics in London.

The lesson is that everyone, at some point, is going to do something they regret. The mistake you made is only important if it ends up defining you, and your future. If you learn from it, the lesson could provide the incentive to spur you on to even greater heights.

About the only sponsorship which I do think goes too far is the Heineken one, or any alcohol sponsorship. In the AP story, Sir Ian Gilmore, special adviser to the Royal College of Physicians on alcohol, said, "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."

We do tend to think that way with our sporting events. And fans who overindulge typically cause lots of problems. While eating unhealthy foods may be detrimental to your long-term health, when someone gets plastered at sporting events it can be detrimental to other people's health.

For that reason alone, I'd forgo the alcohol sponsorships. As for the rest, I'd just say thanks for helping to foot the bill for these world-class events.

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