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Sport sponsorship lends halo to supplements and sports drinks

Spectators can attribute the positive qualities of the sport they’re watching to the supplements and sports drinks being promoted. vijay chennupati/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Sporting bodies shouldn’t unconditionally accept sponsorship from nutritional supplements and sports drinks companies because a link with sports lends undue credibility to these unproven products. In an article just published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, my colleague and I argue such sponsorship misleads the public into thinking the products are inevitably good for health, fitness, and well-being.

Sport sponsorship – and its promotional cousin celebrity endorsement – can deliver massive mutual benefits. Consider the Nike–Michael Jordan relationship: basketball participation expanded, and Jordan became the world’s most recognisable athlete while Nike became the planet’s dominant sports shoe supplier.

But sponsorship can also be problematic.

During the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, the tobacco industry embedded itself in sport, and often paid for the naming rights for events and leagues. In the light of incontrovertible evidence that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer and other ill health, governments banned direct and indirect advertising of tobacco products.

The vacuum this left was quickly filled by multinational food and beverage companies, such as Coca Cola, Nestle, and McDonald’s, alongside alcohol brands. These are by no means health-promoting products, and despite their link with sports, don’t add to their legitimacy.

But sponsorship by nutritional supplement and sports drinks companies is more complicated. These products appear to encourage healthy living, and exercise, and both are linked to the ethos of sport, which is to fine-tune the body’s capacity to perform. Amino acids help build muscle, for instance, while high-energy drinks can stall the onset of fatigue.

Still, there’s a problematic side to the regular use of supplements and sports drinks; the health and performance benefits of many of the products remain unproven.

While a beverage with high levels of caffeine might provide a short-term energy boost, its effect can be severely moderated by the dose, the time when it’s taken, and the nature of the sporting activity. And while multivitamin capsules are promoted as immune system stimulants and energy boosters, supporting evidence is thin.

Supplements and sports drinks can also have serious health implications. Advertising implies these products are benign but large doses of caffeine can trigger irregular heart rhythm, and lead to anxiety attacks. And a daily diet of energy drinks can lead to obesity and diabetes because of their sugar content.

To athletes, supplements also pose a risk of doping as they sometimes contain prohibited substances. Ingesting prohibited substances lead to sanctions regardless of any intention or knowledge of their presence.

These problems are compounded when the products are linked to sponsorship deals because spectators attribute the positive qualities of the sport they’re watching to the product being promoted. The link can lead to a seamless association whereby the product (in this case nutritional supplements and sport drinks) comes to be seen as not only as integral to sport, but also part of the overall experience.

By accepting their sponsorship, various sporting codes lend unwarranted credibility to products that would not otherwise be seen as beneficial or healthy. The issue has already prompted disquiet among sporting authorities, and many sports organisations have publicly distanced themselves from claims about their endorsement of supplement use.

The American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine have issued a joint statement highlighting how supplements only benefit specific sports (creatine use for high-intensity sports, such as weight lifting and sprinting, for instance). They also point out that the majority of the supplements on the market fall into the category of ergogenic aids that do not perform as claimed.

Similarly, the Irish Rugby Football Union recently noted:

the increased popularity of such products, across all ages and all sports, may be due to a lack of understanding of the claims made by manufacturers, many of which are not backed up by scientific evidence.

Meanwhile, the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) says the use of dietary supplements is cause for concern because their manufacture and labels aren’t regulated. And this could mean supplements contain undeclared substances that are prohibited under anti-doping regulations.

These statements stand in stark contrast to the ubiquitous supplements and drinks sponsorship of sports teams and events.

The unease sporting authorities feel about endorsing these products is cause for caution about nutritional supplements and sports drink consumption and sponsorship. While it may not be sufficient for sporting codes to ditch such sponsorship, it should warn them against entering arrangements without first undertaking a “due diligence” test.

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