Olympic sponsors, including Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Samsung and Adidas, are coming under increasing pressure over their involvement with the Beijing 2008 Games, amid criticisms of China’s human rights and foreign policy record.
But the sponsors are caught in a double bind. Yes, they want associations with the Olympic ideals of peace, dignity and the harmonious development of humanity through sport. And they do not mind paying for it – they have shelled out up to $100m (£50m) apiece for the privilege and will parade their associations at this year’s Beijing Games.
But, at the same time, their names are being dragged ever deeper into protests about China’s human rights at home and its policies in Tibet and Darfur.
For some, this exemplifies the paradox at the heart of any corporate social responsibility programme. It is easy for a company to declare its commitment to a set of laudable ethical principles, but then the company has to live up to them. Any lapse or perceived failure is jumped on by critics who accuse the corporations of public relations-led hypocrisy.
Attention has focused on Olympic sponsors since film director Steven Spielberg resigned as artistic director to the Beijing Games earlier this month. This was in protest at China’s alleged failure to use its influence with the Sudanese Government – a major trading partner – to stop human rights abuses in Darfur.
Spielberg had come under pressure to resign from tinseltown activists such as Mia Farrow, who lends her name to the Dream for Darfur campaign and has dubbed Beijing the “genocide Olympics”. She has called for a boycott of sponsors.
Meanwhile, the Free Tibet campaign, which opposes China’s occupation of Tibet and represents the Dalai Lama, has slammed sponsors for supporting the Games. A spokesman says: “If we sat down with Coca-Cola, we would say you are lending your name to a regime with one of the worst human rights records in the world, a regime that executes more people than all other countries every year, which comes bottom on freedom of speech.
“As a message to the commercial people, we say you are lending your name to a human rights pariah. I would question the commercial wisdom of being associated with such a regime.”
The spokesman draws back from calling for a boycott of the sponsors, but says the organisation is considering such a move.
One sponsorship source believes the public is highly unlikely to link the sponsors directly with China’s alleged human rights abuses, or link the names of Coke or McDonald’s with the occupation of Tibet.
But another points out that the top-level worldwide Olympic partners – those already mentioned, plus others such as Johnson & Johnson, Kodak, Visa, Panasonic, Atos Origin and Omega – are in a difficult position.
They are sponsoring the Olympics wherever the Games take place, not Beijing. It is up to the Olympic organisers to protect their brands from criticism, since they awarded the Games to China in 2001.
However, another sponsorship source puts a brave face on a possible backlash against the sponsors. “China has already put some pressure on Sudan over Darfur since the Spielberg resignation,” he adds. “This is the point of the Olympics – to try and make the world better and to promote peace. These campaigns are helping that along and that is what the sponsors buy into.” It should be pointed out that there have been reports this weekend of further aerial bombings in areas of Darfur with civilian populations.
Giles Gibbons, managing partner at corporate responsibility consultancy Good Business, says the source’s argument sounds overly optimistic: “The Olympics is a really difficult sponsorship at the best of times. There are no perimeter hoardings allowed and the branding is fairly intangible. Coming with the negative connotations of China, it is going to be a difficult year for the sponsors.”
He points to London’s winning bid for the 2012 Games, which had social responsibility at its heart, with an emphasis on developing young people and the legacy the Games would leave in the local area. But he adds: “It is difficult with Beijing. Most of the sponsors will find the China factor very difficult to deal with. It is sensitive and they are going to be tip-toeing around it.”
A Coca-Cola spokeswoman says the company has regular dialogue with the International Olympic Committee on such issues. She adds: “We do not support or oppose individual countries, governments or political or religious causes. We aim to strengthen communities around the world through direct investment, employment, setting an example of best practice in our operations, and upholding the highest standards of corporate responsibility.”
Olympic sponsors are discovering that corporate social responsibility is a two-way street. They cannot hope to bask in the glow of high-minded Olympic ideals without taking a principled stand on China’s human rights record. But, given that many of the sponsors do increasing business in China, they can hardly criticise the regime which enables them to engage in these activities.