Beijing 2022 Olympic Games loom as a test for corporate sponsors

On the evening of February 4, 2022, an opening ceremony in Beijing is scheduled to kick off the Winter Olympics, the second time in 14 years the Games will be held in China. But more than medals will be at stake. The 2022 Games highlight a dilemma facing potential sponsors: risking association with an authoritarian regime or giving up a well-deserved chance to become a star on the world stage?

Big companies are eager to jump into the action. Visa Inc.,

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Coca-Cola Co. and a host of other companies will be represented in Beijing as “Olympic Partners,” the highest level of sponsorship available, a level that spans multiple Games cycles and is reserved for those who write the biggest. checks and throw the most aggressive. related marketing campaigns. Mars-Wrigley will also be present and handing out Snickers, “the official chocolate for the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games”.

What might have seemed obvious – supporting a popular sporting event in a country with 1.4 billion consumers – may turn out to be a high-risk gamble. The Olympics could mark the crescendo of a multi-year trend in which some Western consumers, advocates and lawmakers are highlighting what they see as the true costs of working with a country where horrific human rights violations have taken place. been listed by American journalists and officials. At a time when global companies depend more than ever on the Chinese market, his government has proven easily to be triggered by the slightest criticism and not shy about imposing economic sanctions on those who cross it politically.

One year away from the 2022 Winter Olympics, Beijing is preparing facilities, as activists refine strategies to draw attention to their causes.


Photo:

roman pilipey / EPA / Shutterstock

Already defenders are asking Airbnb Inc.,

another Olympic partner, why his accommodation is available in a country where the Uyghurs of the province of Xinjiang are accommodated in concentration camps, subjected to forced labor and other abuses.

Airbnb is one of many companies that are promoting themselves as business models of social responsibility, emphasizing volunteer programs and nonprofit outreach in a way that is increasingly a consideration for consumers who decide how and where to spend their money. When it comes to China, these activists say, the company seems less concerned.

“Airbnb is very important on social issues, but they are selective on what social issues,” said Zumretay Arkin, program and advocacy manager at the Uyghur World Congress, an organization committed to raising awareness of the plight of the minority.

Such a criticism presents a trap: It demands a response from companies like Airbnb, but a response that even hints at the existence of Uyghur concentration camps could be enough to threaten its activities in China. An Airbnb spokesperson declined to comment.

Sport and politics in China have proven to be a combustible mixture in the past. Just ask the National Basketball Association, which is still struggling to regain full market access after the Houston Rockets general manager tweeted his support for independence activists in Hong Kong in 2019.

Olympians are not supposed to express their political opinions on sites associated with the Games, but the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee recently said it will not punish US athletes who protest.


Photo:

Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

Following China’s response, prominent players and coaches declined to criticize and, in some cases, supported China. Chinese NBA game broadcasts were canceled and sponsorship deals ended for a total of millions of dollars. A state-run network did not resume broadcasting NBA games until last October, a year after the offending tweet.

In the case of the NBA and other sports, a comment from one person left an entire organization radioactive, which could put Olympics affiliates at a standstill. Nike Inc.’s revenue, for example, rose 24% in China in the last quarter, compared to 1% in North America. Behind these sales is a China-based supply chain that is essential to the smooth running of all of its global operations.

What could happen to the company sponsoring an Olympian if she lands in Beijing and speaks out in favor of the Uyghurs?

Given China’s modus operandi in this area, the shutdown is likely to be encouraged. Chinese authorities deny allegations of human rights violations and have branded the camps as professional schools. And it’s not just the Uyghurs that advocates will draw attention to – support groups for Tibet and Hong Kong have also turned the Games into an opportunity to raise awareness for their causes. The Olympic Charter bans “political, religious or racial demonstrations or propaganda” at Olympic venues, but in December, the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee said it would not punish US athletes who protest at the Games.

“Airbnb is very important on social issues, but they are selective on which social issues”


– Pro-Uyghur activist Zumretay Arkin

Some sponsors are hoping that the globalized romanticism of the Games will replace the messy political realities. “We strongly support the vision of the Olympics to build a better world through sport,” said a spokesperson for Mars-Wrigley.

But there are some important unknowns to consider. China’s crackdown on protests in Hong Kong in 2019 took popular American businesses in the middle. Protesters targeted the windows of Starbucks Corp. in Hong Kong, believing that the company’s local franchisee supported Beijing. Apple Inc. has removed an app used by protesters – for what the company said are public safety reasons – and has come under criticism for helping Chinese authorities.

What if similar events were scheduled for the 2022 Games? Or if China, in the 12 months leading up to the start of the Games, takes an aggressive step towards Taiwan, a development some say would require a US response?

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Businesses, on the other hand, are desperate for a bargain audience. Home orders have pushed more consumers to platforms like Netflix,

that do not carry advertising, which makes the prospect of a live broadcast event all the more enticing.

There is a suitable precedent to consider: The case of Mesut Özil, a former midfielder for English football club Arsenal. At the end of 2019, he posted a comment on his social media accounts denouncing the Uyghur internment camps.

Arsenal’s next game was put on hold in China and when games resumed Chinese commentators claimed uzil was not on the pitch. The Özil avatar has disappeared from Chinese versions of football video games.

It was the China 101 moment of professional football. In Hollywood, several films that have angered the Chinese authorities have taught everyone to avoid the “three T’s”: Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square.

When choosing Beijing, the International Olympic Committee had only controversial options. In 2015, when the venue for the 2022 Games was decided, Oslo, Krakow and Stockholm had given up, leaving only one competitor for Beijing: Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Campaigners’ attempts to move the 2022 Games from China did not gain popularity, so they focused on corporate sponsors.

The IOC went for “the devil they knew,” said Mandie McKeown, executive director of the International Tibet Network, which organized a letter from more than 180 human rights organizations calling on governments to boycott the Games.

President Biden has indicated that he will not support a boycott that would prevent American athletes from attending. Offshoring is not in the cards either.

“We’ve exhausted that route, so we’ll focus on corporate sponsors,” Ms. Arkin said.

Market forces dependent on the 2022 Games and its host nation as a whole could prove to be resilient.

Money speaks. Or in this case, keep silent.

Write to Erich Schwartzel at [email protected]

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