Corporate advertisers have been conspicuously quiet in the leadup to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, and who can blame them.
Other than the 2,900 world-class athletes, who have toiled at least four years for the honor to compete, there isn’t a whole lot to be gleefully promoting about these Olympics.
Less than a week before the Opening Ceremony at the Bird’s Nest Stadium, sponsors find themselves in a tangled geopolitical and marketing dilemma. China is the target of global condemnation for its human-rights abuses against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang Province, allegations that China denies.
Global human rights groups have also charged China with repression in Tibet and Hong Kong. Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai’s disappearance from public life in November after accusing a government official of sexual abuse remains a source of concern.
The United States, Great Britain, Australia and Canada are staging a diplomatic boycott, meaning their athletes will compete but their politicians will not attend. More than 80 heads of state attended the Opening Ceremony at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, including then-President George W. Bush. The suite boxes will look far different this time around.
Athletes are being warned that they will be punished if they protest or say anything that would offend their Chinese hosts. Some countries are so worried about government spying that they have suggested their athletes leave personal cellphones at home and travel with “burner” phones.
As if the political situation were not enough of a cloud hanging over these Games, they will be the second Olympics to take place in a strict COVID bubble as the global pandemic continues. Foreign fans are prohibited from attending, so the speedskating oval will be missing the fun-loving orange-clad Dutch fans, the cross-country course will be devoid of the bell-ringing Nordic fans and the giant Olympic plazas, typically the heart and soul of the Olympics, will be largely muted.
As a sportswriter who covered and thoroughly enjoyed 14 Winter and Summer Olympics from Albertville 1992 to Rio 2016, it saddens me to say that missing this one won’t hurt.
Stuck in the middle of all this are the Olympic sponsors, huge companies like VISA, Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble, who are walking a tightrope.
If they launch massive ad campaigns and are effusive in their promotion of these Olympics without addressing the human rights concerns, they will be skewered in the United States and many other places in the world.
If they go out of their way to criticize the Chinese government, they will offend the Olympic hosts and that would surely cause complications in their business dealings there in the future. Many of the companies that are Olympic sponsors do business in China.
The International Olympic Committee has also tried to remain neutral, which is hardly surprising considering its history.
This could have been avoided if the IOC had not awarded these Olympics to Beijing. They already hosted the 2008 Summer Games, so why did they get another one? There weren’t really any other good options. Several potential European nations dropped out of the bidding in 2015. The other top candidate was Almaty, Kazakhstan, which has its own major political and economic issues.
I was at the Bird’s Nest at 8:08.08 p.m. on Aug. 8, 2008 for the Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony, the grandest of all the 14 I attended. There were plenty of concerns heading into those Games, as well.
Despite drastic efforts to produce blue skies, including the closing of factories and removal of cars from city streets, there was thick smog on the eve of the Olympics. President Bush addressed China’s human rights breaches in the weeks leading up to the Games. Activists were arrested after trying to hang Free Tibet banners. Visiting journalists reported having their computers hacked and internet access denied depending on what search words they were using.
But, by and large, the Beijing Summer Games will be remembered as a $40 billion coming out party for a nation that was desperate to establish itself as an economic and athletic superpower. It will be remembered for the amazing athletic feats of sprinter Usain Bolt, swimmer Michael Phelps, tennis players Venus and Serena Williams, soccer stars Lionel Messi and Hope Solo and the late-NBA star Kobe Bryant, who was beloved by Chinese fans.
Sports has a way of making us forget — at least for a short while — all that is wrong with the world. And these athletes who have dedicated much of their lives for this one event deserve a chance to compete on sport’s biggest stage.
Just ask Randy Ableman. The University of Miami diving coach, who has been at the school for 33 years, was a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that never got to compete in the Moscow Games. That was his only shot. And it was taken from him because of politics. He went on to coach more than a dozen Olympians at multiple Olympics, but he never got to stand on that Olympic diving board himself.
And it still hurts.
The smog that hung over Beijing on the eve of the 2008 Olympics eventually cleared and the event was held under largely blue skies. The cloud over these Winter Olympics is far thicker and will remain after the Closing Ceremony. But for 16 days, let’s try to celebrate the athletes. They deserve it.