“Let the Games Begin!” … or Not

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Posted At: April 9, 2008 12:30 PM
by Sarah Yates

A look at the role of sponsors in the controversy surrounding the 2008 Olympics

The press surrounding the 2008 Beijing Olympics has little to do with sports. With about three months to go before the big games, one expects to hear news about the athletes’ preparations and feel growing excitement about the level of competition. That’s all changed this year. Ever since the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that Beijing won the bid to host the 2008 games, human-rights groups have protested the choice, claiming that China’s support of terror regimes and disregard for internal freedoms make it an unworthy candidate.

Actress Mia Farrow, known best for her role in “Rosemary’s Baby,” formed a group last year called Dreams for Darfur, according to a story by BusinessWeek. The group’s mission is to pressure Olympic sponsors to back out of their deals with China. It argues that China’s continual purchase of oil from Sudan supports the Khartoum regime, which is responsible for the blood bath in Darfur. Dubbing the 2008 games the “Genocide Olympics,” similar groups have teamed up with Farrow’s and are planning a smear campaign against the corporate sponsors of the Beijing Olympics. The sponsors include household names like McDonald’s, General Electric, Adidas, Coca-Cola and Visa.

Facing the potential reality of picketers and protests outside their stores, should the executives of these companies be worried about bad press? Some public relations professionals say no, pointing out that most of the sponsors have complied with Dreams for Darfur’s request that they contact the Chinese government and the IOC about the human-rights violations. They say it is presumptuous for Farrow’s group to demand that corporate sponsors pull all support from the Olympics. According to a McDonald’s spokesman, the company is doing all it can, but it is up to intergovernmental bodies to make real changes in areas like Darfur.

Despite this stance, the sponsoring companies may want to watch out. Dreams for Darfur managed to convince famed director Steven Spielberg to resign his post as artistic director for the opening ceremonies, proving the group is influential and in earnest. After all, the reality of China’s infractions is obvious; according to The Epoch Times, residents of Beijing have been forcibly evicted from their houses to make way for the games, and China’s flagrant familiarity with torture and abuse cannot be disputed. With the help of other human-rights activists, Farrow could cause the Olympic sponsors a full-blown public relations nightmare.

Sources:

Cuthbertson, Charlotte. (2006) “Olympic Committee Under Fire Over Beijing 2008.” The Epoch Times. Retrieved February 20, 2008, fromhttp://en.epochtimes.com/news/6-10-11/46700.html

McConnon, Aili. (2008). “Activists Target the ‘Genocide Olympics’.” BusinessWeek. Retrieved February 20, 2008, fromhttp://www.businessweek.com/globalbiz/content/feb2008/gb20080219_953704.htm

Olympic rings graphic by shalvas.  Used under Creative Commons Noncommercial License.

Click here to watch this BusinessWeek interview with Mia Farrow on the topic.

What do you think the IOC and the sponsors of the 2008 Olympics should do in this situation? As a public relations practitioner, how would you handle it?

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