Michelle Kwan and the Obama Administration's President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition might find it easier to land a triple salchow than explain the Olympic figure skater's role as one of Coca-Cola's "Four Pack" for the Sochi winter games next month.
Appointed to the Council by President Barack Obama in June 2010, Kwan was named this summer by Coca-Cola to be one of the company's four athletes featured during the Olympics in its digital advertising, packaging, and retail displays. On the company's website, where she's described as a "figure skating legend and America's sweetheart," Kwan is holding a bottle of Coke. Elsewhere on the site you can find an "exclusive Coca-Cola® Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games Athlete Decal Sheet" that describes Coke and Kwan as "two of the most refreshing things on ice."
Now, it's hardly surprising that the Administration and the company both chose the Olympian, since she appeals to key demographics.
For the Administration, she helps reach young people at risk of obesity. According to the Council, the prevalence of obesity for children ages 6 to 11 quadrupled between the early 1970s and 2007-2008 and tripled for children ages 12 to 19.
For Big Soda? Well, brand loyalty won early leads to a lifetime return on investment.
It's doubtful that Coca-Cola would want Kwan delivering the Council's message on sugar drinks during any of her company-bought-and-paid-for appearances.
Here's what the Council has to say:
"Drink water instead of sugary drinks: Cut calories by drinking water or unsweetened beverages. Soda, energy drinks and sports drinks are a major source of added sugar and calories in American diets. Try adding a slice of lemon, lime or watermelon or a splash of 100-percent juice to your glass of water if you want some flavor."
The Coca-Cola preferred message is "balance":
"Physical activity is vital to the health and well-being of consumers. It is essential in helping to maintain energy balance -- the balance between 'calories in' and 'calories out' -- for overall fitness and health," according to one Coca-Cola website.
The reality, however, is that soda and other sugar drinks are the single biggest source of calories in the American diet. Americans, on average, consume between 18 and 23 teaspoons -- about 300 to 400 calories worth -- of added sugars per day. And many people consume far more.
The physical activity required daily for an average person just to "balance" these empty calories? Walking for about an hour and a half, playing basketball for an hour, or ice-skating for 45 minutes.
And the health consequences are staggering. These added sugars, especially in drinks, cause weight gain, obesity, and chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and gout.
PepsiCo is just as involved as Coca-Cola when it comes to using athletes as brand ambassadors for products like Pepsi and Powerade. Regrettably, most of the athletes on the President's Council are current or former endorsers of sugar drinks, including the Council's co-chair, Drew Brees, a Pepsi man. And like Kwan, they find themselves in the awkward position of promoting fitness and health one day -- and obesity and diabetes the next.
Kwan's roles as a presidentially appointed fitness and nutrition ambassador and a Coca-Cola pitchperson are irreconcilable. She'd win a gold medal for public health if she kept the first job and ditched the second.
By Michael F. Jacobson and Jim O'Hara, director of Health Promotion Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.