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Beijing Olympics Sponsors Find No Easy Choices as Games Approach

By Rick Burton,


Today’s guest columnist is Rick Burton of Syracuse University.

During this past month, when Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai was a fast-moving news story (due in large part to her initial statement that a Chinese politician sexually abused her), I received numerous emails and calls from the world’s media asking me whether global sponsors should consider boycotting the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

With each interview, I attempted to walk a fine line, explaining how nearly every Olympic Games faces calls from angered parties for boycotts or protests. It ultimately leads to insinuations the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should do more to “fix” the world.

In essence, the media implies the IOC should serve the outraged party’s position on human rights, civil rights, animal rights, pollution, poverty, relocation of the poor and misuse of public funds that could have been used for the issues noted above.

In speaking with reporters, I attempt to explain how the world’s sponsors sell products or services in almost every country, and to boycott one country’s attempt to stage the Olympics runs the risk of having the host country or its parochial population turn on the global sponsor.

If Coca-Cola boycotts the 2022 Beijing Games, one very large nation of soda drinkers might boycott Coke. Or spread their displeasure to Visa, Dow, Toyota, Panasonic, Proctor & Gamble and Samsung.

There is also the view, to paraphrase the Bible, that before I try to take the speck out of my sister’s eye, I need to recognize the fact I may have a log in my own.

Translation? When Americans suggest another country is doing something wrong, we might first consider whether global citizens find it appalling that gun violence causes the maiming or murder of American schoolchildren on almost a monthly basis.

This does not excuse any action in any other country (first and foremost), but if the U.S. is hosting the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, is it not possible that outraged parties in other countries could call for those same sponsors to boycott LA 2028 unless Americans stop killing kids in classrooms?

Or, given the smog reports in California (and horrific forest fires), that sponsors should boycott the Olympics until all American cars are electric. As the late Gilda Radner often said on Saturday Night Live , “It’s always something.”

When the Beijing Games begin with Opening Ceremonies in a little over a month, I wonder how many people around the globe will still want to discuss Peng Shuai. This is not to suggest any claim of sexual abuse is not horrific and should be swept under the rug. But will the mainstream media stay with that story, especially as details, for whatever reasons, become increasingly muddied? Will sponsors remain mum on the topic?

In writing this column I suggested I try to remain neutral. But many will be quick to paraphrase a famous quote about doing nothing and how damaging that is. So, let me present the source material as originally presented by John Stuart Mill in his inaugural address to St. Andrew’s University in Scotland:

“Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion . Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing. He is not a good man who, without a protest, allows wrong to be committed in his name, and with the means which he helps to supply, because he will not trouble himself to use his mind on the subject.”

This easily brings the discussion back to the IOC, the national Olympic committees and the primary broadcasters of the world. With any element of dissatisfaction, someone must rise to the challenge of doing more than nothing.

The Women’s Tennis Association certainly did, halting events in China out of concern for Peng Shuai—a strong public stand that could cost the WTA millions of dollars, but one that had the backing of the association’s board and players.

In President Joe Biden’s case, he has launched a diplomatic boycott of the Games in China, withholding attendance of American government officials.

For Olympic sponsors, however, this is tricky business. The first reason is the aforementioned retaliation. You challenge my 2022 Games, and I will revisit that same sentiment upon you elsewhere. In other words, staying with the Bible, an eye for an eye.

A second reason is the real possibility mud-slinging will devolve into pettiness, and generally when all are splattered with slime, the Games and athletes are the ones who suffer. Thankfully, the U.S. is not suggesting an athlete boycott of 2022.

In fact, recall that only 42 years ago America sat out the Games in Moscow. That action led to a Russian boycott of the L.A. Games in 1984, and sponsors lost potential “value” during that four-year period, because two of the biggest countries were not opposing each other on the track and in the pool.

Lastly, and this is the trickiest of the three, it is often difficult for the media and sponsors to land on black-and-white facts. Is the truth finite? Often, it isn’t. And while the media can easily work with conjecture and what the old-timers call balanced reporting, it is a dangerous tightrope for sponsors.

Quite simply, they do not have the corporate fact-finding apparatus to ascertain the truth. So, while they may be offended by the “story” as it emerges, they also can’t be 100% certain they are bringing the right perspective to bear.

The three horsemen above cause me to doubt any of the IOC’s sponsors will boycott the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

But hold this closing thought in mind: Twenty years ago, prior to the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games, Olympic sponsor John Hancock, led by CEO David D’Alessandro, threatened to pull its support of the IOC unless the organization did something about the bribery and shady deals influencing the selections of host cities.

Which is to say that the sponsors do hold influence and can change the way the world thinks about things that offend us. As it is with many things, it’s not too late for a sponsor to take a stand.

Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University. He was the chief marketing officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee for the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympic Games.

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