With the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Summer Olympics finally in the books, human rights activists are gearing up to put pressure on the companies that have taken high-profile sponsorship roles in the upcoming 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.
Those activists are demanding that executives of high-profile corporations justify their support of an event that, they claim, will be used to distract the world's attention from ongoing human rights abuses across China.
Governments of several countries, including the United States, have said that the Chinese government's treatment of the Uyghur people in its western Xinjiang region, involving prison camps and forced sterilization, amounts to a genocide. China has also faced condemnation for its suppression of democracy advocates in Hong Kong and its repression of minorities in Tibet and Inner Mongolia.
Activists are hopeful that they can use the attention the upcoming Games will generate to force the International Olympic Committee to move the Games elsewhere or, at a minimum, to compel large corporate sponsors to withdraw their support.
While relocating the Games at this late date seems a virtual impossibility, activists believe that calling attention to China's human rights abuses — which the Chinese Communist Party vigorously denies — may yet have an impact on sponsors. The Beijing Games are scheduled to held February 4-20.
"I think there's definitely a chance," said Mandie McKeown, the executive director of the International Tibet Network. "The pressure on them is undoubtedly mounting."
Many companies sign marketing agreements with the IOC, but activists have their sights set on some of the most high-profile ones, including those that participate in the IOC's Olympic Partner Program. These include household names in the U.S. such as Coca-Cola, General Electric, Visa, Intel and Toyota.
Most of the major Olympics sponsors have made very public commitments to human rights, explicitly building them into their corporate policies, which puts them in a delicate position with regard to the Beijing Games.
"Having anything to do with Beijing 2022 will not adhere to whatever human rights policies you think your organization upholds," McKeown said. "They will just be destroyed. They won't be worth the paper they're written on."
Despite the outcry, however, corporate sponsors of the Olympics have remained largely mute.
"The response that we've had so far from the sponsors is basically nothing," said Koen Stoop, European Union policy coordinator for the World Uyghur Congress, based in Munich, Germany.
To date, one of the few times that major Olympic sponsors have defended themselves in public was during a hearing before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China late last month, after U.S. lawmakers had compelled several of them to send representatives.
'We ... follow the athletes'
The contentious hearing was marked by angry statements from lawmakers of both major U.S. political parties, who characterized the companies — Coca-Cola, Intel, Procter & Gamble, Airbnb, and Visa — as frightened to stand up to the Chinese government because it could result in damage to their businesses.
"You are afraid of them in a way that you are not afraid of critics in the United States," said Representative Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat. "I think that's shameful."
The executives at the hearing said little that could be interpreted as critical of China. When asked their opinion on whether the Games should be moved, most gave an answer similar to that of Coca-Cola's global vice president for human rights, Paul Lalli, who said, "We do not have a say in the selection of the host city, nor on whether an Olympics is postponed or relocated. We do not make decisions on these host locations. We support and follow the athletes wherever they compete."
China responded angrily to the congressional hearing putting pressure on Olympic sponsors, and especially to the accusation of genocide repeated by some lawmakers.
In a statement to The Associated Press, China's Foreign Ministry called the genocide claims "the lie of the century." The statement continued, saying, "This is a serious violation of the spirit of the Olympic Charter and is detrimental to the interests of athletes from all countries and the international Olympic cause. China firmly rejects it."
Hearing the corporate executives couch their acceptance of the Beijing Games as part of their dedication to Olympic athletes is particularly galling to some activists.
"If they're concerned about the athletes and they're putting athletes first, then they should be using their influence ... to convince the IOC that this is not right, this should not be happening," said McKeown of the International Tibet Network.
"They should not be putting the athletes that they are so concerned about in a position where they may be winning medals at what is perceived as being the Genocide Games. It's pretty standard and obvious, I think."
A complex decision
Experts say that the companies choosing to remain as sponsors of the Beijing Games have made a cost-benefit analysis that tells them their connection to the Games will do them more good than harm in terms of driving sales.
"The bottom line is always the bottom line," said Rick Burton, a professor of sport management at Syracuse University. "They're looking at the value of the sponsorship worldwide, not just in the United States. So Coca-Cola or Visa knows that they're going to get some heat in the United States, maybe, but they're not going to get any heat in, let's say, China, or in Australia or Germany, where these issues may not rise to the level that they will in the United States."
The question is, "How much heat can I wear versus how much upside do I have relative to sales?" Burton said. "That makes them sound incredibly capitalistic. But those companies are, in most cases, held very much accountable by what their stakeholders are demanding of them and what their stock price is doing."
A multiyear commitment
Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College who has studied various economic aspects of sports, said that it can be tempting to oversimplify the decision-making process that Olympic sponsors are going through.
It's natural to ask whether attaching a company's name to the Beijing Olympics tarnishes it or burnishes it, he said. But finding an answer isn't easy.
"I don't think there's an approach to quantify how much risk there is and how much potential negative publicity there is," he said.
This is further complicated for the companies that participate in the Olympic Partner Program, the highest level of sponsorship, who sign on for years at a time, covering multiple Summer and Winter Games.
Beijing Games as 'loss leader'
"Some companies will also be looking beyond Beijing," said Zimbalist. "The top sponsorships sometimes last for three or four Olympics," he said.
In effect, he said, the companies are probably looking at Beijing as the marketing equivalent of what business economists call a "loss leader" — a business strategy that loses money on a stand-alone basis but that enables greater profits in different areas.
"They look at Beijing, and they simply say, 'Well, we're just going to have to bite our tongue on this one and look forward to better days ahead,'" Zimbalist said.
Any progress welcome
While the ultimate goal of activist groups would be for sponsors to withdraw completely from their association with the Beijing Games, most realize that isn't a likely outcome and would be pleased to see even some smaller steps.
"The most perfect outcome would be if these sponsors would withdraw their sponsorship of the Beijing Olympics in the face of the Uyghur genocide," said Stoop, of the World Uyghur Congress.
"But even gestures like putting certain statements out during the Olympics, where they express concern about the Uyghur genocide — or anything that raises awareness during the Olympics about what is happening to the Uyghur people — that is already an outcome for us that is better than what is happening now," Stoop said.
Some information for this report came from the Associated Press.