Geoff Dickson: Fat chance for a healthy future after the Olympics

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A politically correct event like the Olympics is crucially important to a sometimes politically incorrect nation like China.

The link between this year's Olympics to both human rights and environmental sustainability is approaching its crescendo.

Tibet and pollution are high profile but there is an equally insidious factor that is less well known.

Western companies such as McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Volkswagen are using their association with the 2008 Olympics as a key strategic platform to further penetrate the Chinese market.

The net result will be increased levels of obesity underpinned by people eating more and moving less.

It is ironic that an event with such healthy, active overtones is likely to have such long-term negative health outcomes for the Chinese population.

The Olympic Games are heavily dependent on the sponsors that contribute millions of dollars to associate themselves with the athletes and sports. By itself, this is not problematic for China.

What is concerning is that most of the major sponsors are directly involved in high calorie or low physical activity products, mainly in the form of calorie-dense beverages (Coca-Cola) and food (McDonald's), and motorised transportation (Volkswagen). There is also an indirect involvement with many organisations (Samsung, Panasonic, General Electric, Legend Group) engaged in the manufacture of labour saving and passive recreation devices.

Evidence exists that caloric intake is increasing and physical activity is declining in China. Clearly, the 2008 Olympics cannot be held responsible as fast food chains, motor vehicle companies, and the manufacturers of labour saving and passive recreation devices were established in China before Beijing was announced as host city.

The argument put forward here is that the 2008 Olympics will assist a number of companies to market to the Chinese population calorie-dense food and beverages as well as devices associated with reduced energy expenditure. To be clear, the 2008 Olympics will not create China's obesity problem but it will exacerbate the problem.

Blinkered by potential financial rewards provided by China's marketplace of 1.2 billion consumers, Western multinationals were able to ignore other concerns about China's suitability as a host city for the Olympics. These companies are able to access the Chinese market in one of two ways.

At the highest (and most expensive) level is the International Olympic Committee's The Olympic Partner (TOP) Programme. TOP partners have worldwide Olympic marketing rights and are official sponsors of the Olympic Games.

The average per capita consumption of Coca-Cola products in China is 10 units, compared with the worldwide average of 72 and significantly lower than Mexico (487), United States (436), Chile (334) and Australia (309). When the low level of per capita consumption is combined with China's 1.2 billion inhabitants, the potential for economic gain is clear.

McDonald's has approximately 1000 stores in China, double the number from 2004. Although McDonald's has made major improvements in the nutritional composition and quality of its products, their cheapest and most popular products remain high in fat.

China offers a substantial potential growth market for Volkswagen. China will account for 18 per cent of the world's growth in new car sales from 2002 to 2012.

It is predicted that the ownership of motorised transportation in China will increase from 4.2 passenger vehicles per 1000 people in 1995 to 54.3 passenger vehicles per 1000 people in 2025. The irony of motorisation is that it is often lauded as one of the pinnacles of human invention.

The reality is car dependence is associated with increased sitting time and reduced opportunity for physical activity, therefore energy expenditure. In 1997, the results of a large scale cohort study in eight Chinese provinces demonstrated an 80 per cent higher chance of being overweight or obese in a household with motorised transportation.

Can these negative outcomes be offset by increased participation in sport and physical activity? Not likely. In a study conducted after the 2000 Olympics, only 4 per cent of the Australian population who had become more physically active since the Olympics attributed this to the 2000 Olympics.

There is also little likelihood of a "trickle down" effect from the Olympics into increased financial or other support or increased participation at a grass roots level. On both accounts, it is unlikely the negative impact of increased caloric consumption and motor vehicle use associated with the 2008 Olympics will be offset by physical activity increases associated with the same event.

Most developing countries are realising that obesity is best recognised as a chronic epidemic illness. China is on the technology escalator, moving rapidly towards automation and sedentary lifestyles where high calorie, high density food is also readily and cheaply available.

There seems little doubt that the world's most populous nation is at the beginning of an explosion in lifestyle-related disease. The irony of the 2008 Olympics is that far from being the pinnacle of health and physical prowess, the event will serve to accelerate the opportunities for massive multinational globalisation and globesity.

* Geoff Dickson PhD is Associate Dean (research) - Faculty of Health and Environmental Sciences and Associate Director (event tourism) - NZ Tourism Research Institute at AUT University.

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