Beijing Olympic sponsors in the firing line

LONDON - Beijing 2008 is under fire over China's human rights record, but do its sponsors deserve to be vilified?

Beijing Olympic sponsors in the firing line

Steven Spielberg's withdrawal on moral grounds as artistic director for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics may have angered Chinese authorities, but the state's iron grip on national media should ensure that most of its 1.3bn inhabitants don't find out.

However, the film director's high-profile decision and the adoption of the moniker 'genocide Olympics', by actress Mia Farrow, will have left the event's global sponsors, including Coca-Cola and Samsung, wondering whether their brands will end up being associated with the Games for the wrong reasons.

This debate will come to the fore in April when 'free Tibet' protests take place in London as the Olympic Torch Relay passes through the city. The campaigning groups have set themselves the target of shaming the Games and, by implication, its sponsors.

The Olympic Games and politics have always been inseparable. The event's history is littered with examples; US President Jimmy Carter called for a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and four years later the USSR along with 13 Eastern Bloc countries and Cuba, withdrew from the LA Games, to name but two.

So far, sponsors have sat tight and concentrated on the positive attributes of an association with Beijing 2008. Bob Heussner, senior vice-president and head of Games marketing at Octagon Marketing, does not believe brands should set a precedent by dropping out. 'Realistically, sponsors can have very little influence on a country's foreign policy. Especially when it is that of one of the world's biggest countries,' he says.

Earlier this month, the British Olympic Association (BOA) came under fire for asking its athletes to sign contracts prohibiting them from protesting at the Beijing Games. Amid all the controversy, a brief but aggressive media campaign in papers including The Independent called for brands to follow Spielberg's example.

'The fact that PR agencies are already hard at work [justifying brands' tie-ups] is a sign of the sensitivity that brands recognise surrounds politics,' says Tom Silk, managing director of Velocity Sports & Entertainment. 'In the short term, I would expect brands to keep well below the parapet, as there is no upside to being caught in the political crossfire. In the longer term, once the initial furore has died down, I would expect global sponsors to focus their Olympic

marketing on their association with local athletes and teams, above their association with the Beijing Games, specifically.'

With the exception of Johnson & Johnson, which runs its Olympics sponsorship on a games-by-games basis, the IOC's global backers typically sign up for multiple Games, often without knowing where the events will be held.

Brands such as Coca-Cola, which in 2005 extended its Olympic tie until 2020, therefore run the risk that at least one Games will be staged in a country which will attract attention for the wrong reasons. However, Heussner defends this approach. 'The first and foremost consideration must be the marketing opportunities, and brands trust the IOC to make the proper decision,' he says.

Silk, meanwhile, argues that the high-profile doping scandals, which continue to undermine the integrity of the sport pose a far greater threat. 'Politics touches the Games tangentially, but doping cuts to the core of the Olympic ideal,' he says.

China's domestic and foreign policies may sit uneasily with many in the West, but tourists are not shunned after returning from a holiday to China, and Manchester United plunders the region for commercial gain during its pre-season activity without media vilification. Moreover, Gordon Brown recently announced a joint target with China to increase trade between the two countries by 50% to £30bn during the next two years, which met minimal resistance.

Ultimately, then, demanding that Olympic sponsors, without whom the Games would be financially unfeasible, drop out in protest, as suggested by some in the media, seems to smack of double standards. Rather than pressuring brands to pull out, perhaps it would be more appropriate to question the IOC's wisdom in awarding the Games to China in the first place.

Olympic politics in history
  • 1936 Berlin Adolf Hitler attempted to use the Games to demonstrate Aryan supremacy. However, black US athlete Jesse Owens ruined his plans by winning four gold medals.
  • 1964 Tokyo South Africa was banned from participating for its failure to condemn apartheid.
  • 1968 Mexico City Black US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos made a silent protest against discrimination.
  • 1972 Munich Rhodesia was thrown out of the Olympics, while nine Israeli athletes were taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists and later killed in a gun battle.
  • 1976 Montreal 25 African nations boycotted the Olympics in protest at the New Zealand rugby union side's decision to tour South Africa.
  • 1980 Moscow US President Jimmy Carter called for a boycott following the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
  • 1984 Los Angeles The USSR pulled out citing concerns over security measures and the commercialisation of the Games; 13 Eastern Bloc countries and Cuba joined the boycott.
  • 1996 Atlanta Bomb killed two people and injured 200 others.