The Beijing Winter Olympics are filled with potential dangers for major sponsors, who are trying to remain silent about China’s human rights record while protecting at least $ 1 billion that they collectively donated to the IOC.
It could reach $ 2 billion when new numbers are expected this year. Sponsors include big, familiar names like Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Visa, Toyota, Airbnb and Panasonic.
The so-called TOP sponsors of the International Olympic Committee are being stifled by a diplomatic boycott led by the United States, the economic powerhouse of 1.4 billion Chinese – and fear of retaliation from the authoritarian Chinese government.
China, itself, was part of a full-fledged boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
“They (the sponsors) try to distinguish between trying to get the best exposure, but also not trying to be seen as too close to the actions of the Chinese government,” Mark Conrad, who teaches law and ethics sport at Fordham. Gabelli School of Business at the University, said in an email.
The IOC created the tension by returning to a country whose rights violations have been well documented in the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. They are now competing with the pandemic for attention with the opening of the Winter Games on February 4.
Rights violations against Muslim Uyghurs and other minorities contradict the noble principles of the Olympic Charter. The Charter speaks of putting “sport at the service of the harmonious development of humanity, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”.
He further adds: “The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter must be guaranteed without discrimination of any kind, such as race, color, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other, national or social opinion. origin, property, birth or other status.
The Associated Press has contacted most of the major Olympic sponsors, but largely met with silence about their plans, or said the focus was on the athletes. A responding sponsor, German financial services company Allianz, said it was “in regular contact with the IOC” and upheld the ideals of the Games.
A person in contact with sponsors, who was not authorized to speak and asked not to be named, said the general mood, especially for those focusing outside the Chinese market, was to avoid to mention Beijing and work around the boundaries.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the sponsors were silent,” said Dae Hee Kawk, director of the Center for Sports Marketing at the University of Michigan. “You could potentially lose customers. “
Retaliation is a concern. The NBA lived it in 2019 When a Houston Rockets leader sided with a tweet with democracy protests in Hong Kong last month, Olympic sponsor Intel had to apologize after posting a letter on its website asking suppliers to avoid sourcing from China’s Xinjiang region.
Sponsors usually saturate the space around the Olympics. Less now with lucrative hospitality programs also suspended by the pandemic.
“The silence of the sponsors speaks volumes – more than any press release,” wrote Conrad, professor of sports law at Fordham.
The Tokyo Olympics delayed by the pandemic have blocked sponsors. Fans were banned, officials shut down an enclosure overflowing with sponsor marquees, and Toyota, one of Japan’s top three Olympic sponsors, removed its ads from local television to avoid being tied to the Olympics. This raised the issue of sponsors asking for compensation from the IOC.
The Games were unpopular in Japan when they opened, but polls showed they were considered a success when closed.
When asked about her plans for Beijing, Toyota spokeswoman Rina Naruke told the AP in a brief statement.
“We are unable to provide specific details at this time. We will keep you posted once we have more information.
Terrence Burns, who worked for the IOC in marketing and branding but is best known as an independent consultant who helped land five successful Olympic bids, took issue with the idea that the Beijing Olympics were very different or that the sponsors walked lightly.
“The marketing opportunity for Beijing 2022 has always been the ability to promote Chinese Games in the Chinese market; just like the 2008 Games, ”Burns wrote in an email to AP.
“The biggest commercial impact of the Beijing Games for TOP partners will be in the Chinese market. And realistically, it’s not much different from previous Games. “
Burns said the IOC sponsors are here for the long haul. Coca-Cola has been associated with the Olympics since 1928, and the next Games look promising financially.
“I see no business evidence of a negative backlash or consumer concern against a TOP Partner. None, ”Burns wrote.
The next Olympic Games are 2024 in Paris, followed by Milan-Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, and Los Angeles. The IOC also announced that Brisbane, Australia, for the 2032 Summer Olympics, and that Sapporo, Japan is one of the main contenders for the 2030 Winter Games.
Host Cities are no longer selected in an application process, which has been the subject of corruption well reported by some IOC members. members. The IOC leadership now chooses the sites with the approval of the members.
IOC sponsors have come under pressure from human rights defenders and some members of the US Congress, who have called for either moving the Olympics or a full-fledged boycott. Last month, an unofficial body set up in Britain concluded that the Chinese government had committed genocide and crimes against humanity.
China called it a “lie of the century” and said that the burial camps in northwest Xinjiang are being used for vocational training.
The five US-based sponsors – Coca-Cola, Intel, Airbnb, Procter & Gamble and Visa – were questioned in a bipartisan hearing in July by the Congressional Executive Committee on China.
Most dodged pointed questions, said they had to follow Chinese law, had nothing to do with choosing Beijing as the venue, and focused on athletes no matter what the Games.
Steven Rodgers of Intel, executive vice president and general counsel, was the only one in five to say he believed in the US State Department’s findings that China was “committing genocide against the Uyghur people.”
Olympic sponsors and NBCUniversal, the broadcast rights holder for the United States, were interviewed in a letter from Human Rights Watch be aware of the rights climate in China and examine supply chains.
President Joe Biden signed a bill last month to ban products made in northwest China’s Xinjiang region unless companies can prove forced labor was not involved.
NBC has paid $ 7.75 billion for the next six Olympics (2022 to 2032) and the network accounts for almost 40% of all IOC revenue, being its main partner. He has started promoting the Olympics in the United States but plays down references to Beijing.
IOC President Thomas Bach has repeatedly said that the Olympics should be “politically neutral”. But they rarely are. Four years ago, at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Bach aggressively promoted his candidacy to lead the talks between the two Koreas.
At the end of last year, the United Nations General Assembly approved the resolution on the Olympic Truce by consensus of the 193 member states; 173 co-sponsored the resolution.
However, 20 countries did not register as co-sponsors, including the United States, Great Britain, Japan, Canada, Australia, India and North Korea. The United States and Australia are future Olympic hosts, Japan has just hosted the Summer Olympics and is a candidate for 2030, and North Korea is China’s staunchest ally.
Bach refused to condemn the alleged genocide or speak out on human rights in China. He rarely mentions Uyghurs by name.
“We are fully focused on the athletes,” said Bach. “We are delighted that they can participate, that they are supported by their national governments. The rest is politics.
Tali Arbel contributed from New York and Yuri Kageyama contributed from Tokyo.
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