June 17, 2005

Olympic Games "Linked" to Obesity

About a week ago I ran across this very brief item on NZCity (we scour the English-speaking world …). The article claims that researchers have linked the 2008 Olympic games to an obesity epidemic in China.

No, wait a minute. That's not right. Actually, the article says that Dr. Geoff Dickson, a researcher at the Aukland University of Technology, believes that the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing will lead to an obesity epidemic in China.

So I wondered, to myself, what kind of "research" is going on here? I tracked down a bit more information about Dr. Dickson and his theory. Dr. Dickson is the Head of Research for the Department of Sport and Recreation within the Faculty of Health at AUT. His paper has been published (with co-author Grant Schofield) in the International Journal of Sport Management and Marketing under the title "Globalisation and globesity: the impact of the 2008 Beijing Olympics on China." (I'll note here that Dr. Dickson is a member of the Editorial Board at IJSMM.)

You can read the whole article (PDF) here. Here's my summary of the theory:

  • Chinese people are eating more and exercising less.
  • Poor diet and low physical activity are bad for one's health.
  • The 2008 Olympics will lead to more foreign direct investment in China by companies that encourage poor diet and low physical activity.
  • Hosting the Olympics does not lead to a "trickle-down" increase in participation and physical activity that might offset the effects of the above. (This is an interesting thought, and worth following up on.)
  • Therefore, the 2008 Olympics will contribute to an obesity epidemic and a health crisis in China.

A nice logical argument, as far as it goes, but the line connecting the Olympic games to the obesity epidemic ("globesity") is stretched pretty thin. I am sure that the "unhealthy lifestyle" companies noted in the study (official Olympic sponsors Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Volkswagen, Panasonic, Samsung, Legend Group, and General Electric) would be quite pleased to increase their sales in China. However, that would be true whether they were Olympic sponsors or not, and these companies would still be making a large direct investment in the Chinese market. The paper offers no real evidence that Olympic sponsorship is a more effective form of marketing than any other, on a per-dollar basis, or that it has caused a net increase in foreign direct investment.

In the end, the authors are really making a political (or possibly a public health) point, and not a scientific one:

We call upon the IOC to establish a Physical Activity, Nutrition and Health Commission … A Physical Activity, Nutrition and Health Commission would be in a position to ensure that each Olympic Games bid city makes an effort to promote healthy nutrition and physical activity.

Dickson and Schofield go on to suggest an addition to the Olympic charter. You may be surpised to learn that the 109-page Olympic charter (PDF) never mentions fitness, and mentions health only in the context of the athletes. Dickson and Schofield would like to see exercise and diet placed on at least an equal footing with the environment on the list of the IOC's concerns.

And you know what? I like this idea. The IOC really should try to ensure that the Olympic games leave behind a legacy of better fitness and health; after all, that's often one of the arguments that governments hear when they are asked to subsidize high-performance sports. Shouldn't the people get what they think they are paying for?


Geoff Dickson said...


Thanks for your interest in our article.

Ours would not be the first argument that media and more specifically NewstalkZB has misrepresented. We chose our words very carefully. As you point out, we never claimed that the 2008 Olympics would cause of China’s emerging obesity problems. This is why we used phrases like ‘serve to accelerate’, ‘fuel on the fire’, and ‘the Olympics will not create China’s obesity problem but it will exacerbate it’.

Now turning your concerns.

We did not seek to enter into any debate about whether Olympic sponsorship is more or less effective than other forms of advertising. We feel comfortable with our assertion regarding the Olympics serving as a catalyst for increased FDI.

What we did assert was that the likes of Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Volkswagen, Panasonic, Samsung, Legend Group, and General Electric are associating themselves with the 2008 Olympics to promote their products/ services. In every other part of the world, there is clear evidence that these products and services are associated with increased in obesity. On this basis, we suggested the IOC become proactive on the matter, in much the same way as they became involved in the environmental movement a few years ago.

To be clear, we agree that China would on the road to obesity even if the 2008 Olympics were not to be held in China. But the point is that the 2008 Olympics are at the cornerstone of a number of marketing campaigns that can be reasonably linked to either decreased physical activity or increases in caloric intake. A closer inspection of paragraph 3 in our article would see this point already emphasised.

All the best.

Geoff Dickson.

Amateur said...

Thank you for taking the time to comment.

I agree that the media response to your article contained a gross simplification of your argument. My post is also a simplification. I know from my own past experience that this is not uncommon.

On the other hand, they got my attention, and that resulted in at least one more reader for your article. So I suppose they will say that you should thank them!