Credit: e-basak

As the London Olympic Games draw to a close, let’s take a closer look at the performance of the biggest, best-funded and most highly trained team to compete in this year’s Olympics: representatives of multinational corporations. 

A few statistics illustrate the scope of the corporate investment in the Olympics:

  • The 11 biggest corporate sponsors paid nearly $1 billion for the rights to flaunt the Olympic seal during the London Games and 2010’s Winter Games in Vancouver.
  • Corporate valuation specialist Brand Finance valued the Olympic brand as being worth just over $47.5 billion That leaves it behind only Apple ($70.6 billion) and above the corporate world’s next biggest brand, Google ($47.4 billion), although valuation of an event such as the Olympics is difficult.
  • Proctor and Gamble, an Olympic sponsor, expects its 2012 Olympic sponsorship to result in $500 million in additional sales, while NBC, the Olympic broadcaster expect to net an additional $1 billion in revenue from the Olympics. 

For most corporate sponsors, however, the take-home rewards are not the green, gold or silver that flows into their bank accounts but the opportunity to shape their image.  Coca Cola, an Olympic sponsor since the 1928 games in Amsterdam, expects to reach 1.5 billion people worldwide via its create-your-own-beat social-media and mobile campaign. The Coke promo begins with the sounds of six athletes set to a musical track, then asks consumers to add their own sounds to the track — and share it. Wendy Clark, Coca Cola’s senior vice president of integrated marketing, says this campaign provides “share-worthy” content that gives young adults “cred” in their social-media circles. “We don’t spend this amount of time on things that don’t work,” she said.


McDonald’s, another corporate sponsor, has built the world’s largest McDonald’s in London’s Olympic Village. It seats up to 1,500 people and is expected to serve 14,000 people a day during the games and offer free Olympic-themed Happy Meals to children.  “Many athletes tell us we are their favorite place to eat,” says a McDonald’s spokeswoman. Mickey D expects to make £3 million selling fast food during the Games, after  which  the Olympic Golden Arches  will be bull-dozed to the ground.


Heineken UK, the beer maker, is an Olympic supplier.  It has erected digital outdoor screens throughout London underground and rail stations that display near-live content that directly feeds from the Heineken® Fanhub. The public screens include a daily calendar of events, Heineken pubs nearby, relevant Olympic and Paralympic facts and details of medals celebrations – “all updated regularly to drive consumer intrigue and interest.”

Credit: Heineken UK


The outsized corporate presence at the Olympics has drawn some criticism. The Associated Press reported: A protest last week, the largest so far against the games, drew a mix of left-wing and green activists who decry the Olympics as a corporate juggernaut rolling over residents and their civil rights. They marched peacefully, chanting against what they called the “Corpolympics,” watched by police officers on foot and motorcycle. The protesters contend that the often-cited Olympic boost to traditionally gritty, working-class east  London is an illusion, whereas major corporate sponsors such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola gain from the 9.3 billion pound ($14 billion) games. They said the mass arrests at the cycling demonstration, and limits on corporate branding designed to protect sponsors, show that the games are a threat to civil liberties.


An editorial on the Games called “Chariot of Fries”  in Lancet, the British medical journal, noted:  Health campaigners have rightly been dismayed. On June 20, the London Assembly (an elected body that scrutinizes the work of the Mayor of London) passed a motion urging the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to adopt strict sponsorship criteria that exclude food and drinks companies strongly associated with high calorie brands and  products linked to childhood obesity. Meanwhile, the UK’s Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has said that the presence of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola at the 2012 Games sends out the wrong message to children.  Indeed, their presence is hardly subtle… Cadbury’s has joined forces with McDonald’s to  offer what it states on its website will    be the “perfect snack” to enjoy whilst watching the Games—a chocolate bar-ice cream concoction with a whopping 395 calories per serving.  Coca-Cola, meanwhile, has raised its profile considerably by branding the Olympic torch relay.


As the Olympics finish in London and planning begins for the 2016 Rio Games, Michael Jacobsen from Center for Science in the Public Interest asks:  Brazilians are one of the world’s biggest consumers of soda (fueled by Coca-Cola’s  billion-dollars-a-year investments), and host to over 650 McDonald’s outlets. Experts predict that Brazil’s bulging waistlines may grab the world record from the United States by 2022. Will junk-food marketers get an Olympic carte blanche again?


In his recent book What Money Can’t Buy The Moral Limits of Markets, Harvard political scientist Michael Sandel warns that the most fateful change of the last three decades has been “the expansion of markets, and of market  values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.”  In the distant past, the Olympic Games provided a celebration of fitness, athletic discipline, fair play and internationalism.  Now they have become one more place for multinational corporations to promote the patterns of hyper-consumption that contribute to premature mortality and preventable illness. 


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