McDonald's long association with the Olympic movement began at the 1968 Games in Grenoble. An American competitor mentioned to a reporter that she was missing the taste of home. McDonald's airlifted in a planeload of hamburgers to feed Team USA. It was viral marketing before such a concept existed.
For the past 20 years, McDonald's has been the most visible of the International Olympic Committee's dozen top sponsors (who together contribute about $1-billion U.S. per four-year cycle). No vista of an Olympic site is complete without several prominent displays of the Golden Arches.
At some of the less successful efforts at staging the Games, McDonald's is more than a signage opportunity. It's a nutritional lifeline. For instance, in Sochi, there were two locally sourced dining options – a thin gruel masquerading as borscht and a steady supply of worker dissatisfaction. McDonald's was the only place where you could get a) a salad and b) service that didn't involve being berated in Russian.
In Rio, McDonald's opened a pop-up in the Olympic village that served competitors for free. The dining hall served all sorts of healthy, dietician-approved options, but the fittest people alive were lined up at Mickey D's at all hours. They had to put a cap on the number of items any person could order at once: 20.
If you've been to an Olympics, McDonald's is a key element of your visual memory board. That ended Friday.
Although the fast-food chain recently re-signed a deal meant to take it through Tokyo 2020, McDonald's announced it is ditching the partnership, effective immediately.
"[We] have mutually agreed with McDonald's to part ways," the IOC said in a release.
(Yes, one can imagine how that decision might be mutual. "We've decided to stop giving you tens of millions of dollars for free." "Well, we've decided that we don't want your truckload of free money. What an amazing coincidence!")
The IOC pointed out that it has already replaced McDonald's with new sponsors. (Hey, they've got Alibaba on board. Whoever or whatever that is.)
Industry observers observed that McDonald's is headed in a different direction – one that will involve making hamburgers that do not taste like a wet sponge wedged between sheets of cardboard. That costs money, which must come from somewhere.
There's also the notion that the next three Olympics (in Pyeongchang, Tokyo and Beijing) will be competed while Americans are asleep, reducing interest in the chain's largest market.
How about another explanation – that the Olympics aren't what they used to be, that everyone knows it and that some people are starting to do something about it. McDonald's was one of the first true believers and they're jumping off the Olympic bandwagon while it's still moving.
Twenty years ago, as the IOC was preparing for the Coca-Cola Games of 1996, the Olympic brand was ascendant. They'd had a nice run of successful productions – Seoul, Albertville, Barcelona, Lillehammer. Many consider the last two the best Summer and Winter Games, respectively, yet. That's when McDonald's agreed to start forking over the maximum donation.
Atlanta was a poorly conceived boondoggle complete with terror attack, but it seemed like a one-off. Athens 2004 helped ruin a country, but, hey, everyone figured Greece had it coming, anyway.
In recent years, the hits have begun to pile up. Sochi turned out to be the most expensively assembled Potemkin village in human history, with the dour atmosphere that suggests. Rio was a local failure months before it began. They made it happen, but only barely, and they're paying dearly for it now.
Between the doping schemes, the bankruptcies, the usual march of organizational snafus and assorted avoidable controversies, the Olympics has managed to turn a very good thing – the small, sweet gathering McDonald's wanted to send a care package to – into something venal and grasping. What was once a festival of global amity has begun to seem like the General Dynamics company picnic. It's a celebration of rapaciousness, and damn the people affected.
As mentioned, the IOC has three sturdy hosts lined up next, but you can see the cracks spreading. They needed to go back to Beijing for the second time in 14 years, which looks desperate. The IOC will soon announce the hosts of the 2024 and 2028 Summer Games. It's unusual to do two at once, but since only a pair of viable cities (Paris and Los Angeles) are interested, what's the point in waiting? One or both might catch sense and back out. Better to lock them in now before Kim Jong-un starts lobbing tactical warheads at the speed-skating oval next February.
Rather than accept the signs that they have extended their ambition beyond palatable limits, the IOC's answer to its image problems is to go even further. They've just introduced three-on-three basketball, freestyle BMX, rock climbing and skateboarding to the Olympic roster. Just like they did it in ancient Greece.
IOC president Thomas Bach described this insipid foray into teenage pastimes as an effort to get "more youthful, more urban."
I'm sorry, but what about sprinting and high jumping is geriatric and/or rural? This is a transparent bid to eat the X-Games' lunch and help bolster falling viewership numbers. The IOC has been headed down a thorny path for years now, but they've suddenly become trapped and have begun flailing.
What was once the most pristine sporting brand in the world is starting to look like any other corporate grabber looking for the next buck. The IOC has lost sight of the fact that it was the simplicity of the event, its moral force and pure sense of mission that made it attractive to sponsors. Advertisers don't care about the sports. They care about the way some sports make you feel. It's hard to maintain a warm touch when you're wandering around the developing world stripping teetering economies to their sinews for an extra billion. Not even with skateboarding.
McDonald's departure is just the latest signal that the Olympic operation is in decline, along with the benefit to being linked with it.
A corporation as large as McDonald's pays people good money to notice that sort of thing. One wonders if anyone at the IOC will ever try doing the same sort of job.