Winter sports in Beijing and the silence of the sponsors

BeijingThese Beijing Winter Olympics are treacherous to big sponsors, who try to keep quiet about China’s history of human rights abuses and protect the billions of dollars distributed to the International Olympic Committee.

This year this figure can reach 2 billion. Sponsors include prestigious brands such as Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Visa, Toyota, Airbnb and Panasonic.

The IOC’s most important sponsor has been between swords and parades because of a diplomatic boycott led by the United States, the economic power that China represents with a population of 1.4 billion and the threat of retaliation from the Beijing government.

China, for its part, boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics outright.

“Sponsors try to go into a narrow gap to get maximum exposure, but are not seen too close to the actions of the Chinese government,” commented Mark Conrad, a professor of sports law and ethics in the School of Sports. Gabelli Business Administration from Fordham University by email.

The IOC fueled tensions by returning to a country where human rights abuses had been documented prior to the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Human rights violations against Muslim Uighurs and other minorities conflict with the principles of the Olympic Charter. The document states that “sport is in the service of the harmonious progress of humanity with the aim of promoting a peaceful society concerned with the protection of human dignity.”

The Associated Press contacted most Olympic sponsors, but there was almost only silence about their plans or comments that focused on athletes. A sponsor who responded, financial services company Allianz, said it was “in constant contact with the IOC” and supported the ideals of the Games.

A person in contact with the sponsors, who was not authorized to speak and asked not to be identified, explained that the general attitude, especially those with a focus outside of the China market, aims not to mention Beijing and operates very carefully.

“It doesn’t surprise me that sponsors are silent,” said De Hee Kak, director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Sports Marketing. “They could potentially lose business.”

They are concerned about possible retaliation. The NBA experienced this for the first time in 2019 when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey supported pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong on Twitter. Last month, Olympic sponsor Intel posted a letter on its website asking its suppliers to avoid supplies from China’s Xinjiang region.

Sponsors are saturated with advertising in the months leading up to the Olympic event. Activity has been low as the pandemic has led to the cancellation of lucrative hospitality packages.

“The silence of the sponsors is more deafening than any statement,” wrote Fordham’s Professor Conrad.

The Olympic Games will be held later in the summer in Paris, followed by Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, in the winter and Los Angeles. The IOC also announced Brisbane in Australia for Summer 2032 and Sapporo, Japan, a contender for the 2030 Winter Olympics.

IOC President Thomas Bach has insisted that the Olympics should be “politically neutral”. But they usually are not. Four years earlier, during the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Bach promoted talks between the two Koreas.

Last year, the United Nations General Assembly passed an Olympic cease-fire resolution with the consent of 193 member states, of which 173 co-sponsored the resolution.

Bach has declined to condemn the alleged genocide or mention human rights in China. He rarely mentions Uighurs by name.

“We are focusing solely on the athletes,” Bach said. “We provide that they can participate, that they have the support of their national governments. The rest is politics.”