Olympics Sponsors Keep Quiet as the 2022 Games Loom

Krista Solano

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2023

The 2022 Beijing Olympics will reach millions of people around the world. Despite the Games quickly approaching, the most prominent Olympic sponsors have remained silent about the human rights violations in China. The United States announced the decision to diplomatically boycott the games but athletes will compete.

Olympic media background

The Olympic Games continue to be ranked the most appealing sport and entertainment property in the world. The recent 2020 Tokyo Olympics attracted a total of 3.05 billion unique viewers. The Tokyo Games also began the Olympics debut on streaming platforms. TV coverage increased thirty-three percent while decreasing digital output by thirty-four percent. Olympic web and app platforms attracted more than 196 million unique users. Direct fan interaction increased more than three times over the amount for the 2016 Rio Games. The International Olympic Committee’s (“IOC”) social media accounts produced over 6.1 billion engagements, including shares, comments, and likes. The high exposure and engagement of the Olympics make media sponsorships highly sought after.

The Olympic Partners (“TOP”) program is the highest level of sponsorship offered. Beginning in 1985, TOP has grown to include some of the best-known multinational companies. TOP currently partners with thirteen companies, including Coca-Cola, Samsung, Toyota, Visa, P&G, and Intel. TOP program has brought in at least $1 billion for the IOC.

The partnerships work two ways. Inclusion in this tight-knit community allows exclusive marketing rights to the Summer, Winter, and Youth Olympic Games. In turn, the Games are marketed internationally, providing a unique chance to promote Olympians alongside products, services, and corporate initiatives. Moreover, partners have access to use the iconic Olympic rings. The Olympic rings are one of the most widely recognized symbols worldwide, with 9 out of 10 people correctly identifying the logo.

NBCU and Peacock will televise the Games. During the 2013-2016 Olympic cycle, NBC accounted for forty percent of the IOC income. Both NBC and the IOC rely on each other to promote the Games and increase the audience reach.

2022 Beijing Olympics

The 2022 Olympics will be held in Beijing, China. The Winter Games will be the city’s second Olympic showcase. The events will begin on February 4, 2022, and will run for seventeen days.

The IOC chose to return to China even after human rights abuse was documented in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. The IOC promise to improve human rights in China has not been performed. The United Nations has reported that at least 1 million Muslims have been detained in camps in Xinjiang since 2017. China has repeatedly denied all accusations of abuse of Uyghurs, describing the camps as vocational training facilities.

Many IOC sponsors signed the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These guidelines set forth the most authoritative international statement to date regarding human rights and businesses but are not binding international law.  The rights state to “respect, protect and fulfill human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The host city contract for the 2022 Beijing Olympics did not include these guidelines. The 2024 Paris Olympic host city contract does include these guidelines.

Congressional action

On May 28, 2021, Representative Mike Waltz (R-FL.) introduced the Beijing Winter Olympic Sponsor Accountability Act. This act would bar federal agencies from doing business with corporate sponsors of the Olympics for four years. It would also ban the sponsor’s products from being sold at military bases or federal buildings. A few of the biggest sponsors, Coca-Cola, Intel, and P&G, vehemently opposed the proposed bill, stating sponsors have no say in the IOC selected host countries. Congress did not pass the Beijing Winter Olympic Sponsor Accountability Act but ignited more scrutiny around the Games.

On January 19, 2021, Representatives Jennifer Wexton (D-VA) and Mike Waltz (R-FL) introduced the Irresponsible Olympic Collaboration Act, which would strip the IOC of its tax-exempt status. Rep. Wexton claims the IOC has made it clear that profits are more important than human rights and the American taxpayer should no longer subsidize such atrocity. The fate of the bill is still pending. If passed, the IOC’s gross income of more than $100,000,000 a year will become taxable.

Diplomatic boycott

On December 6, 2021, President Biden announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics. The decision was made because of “the PRC’s egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xijiang.” Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom all followed the United States.

Moreover, Peng Shuai’s safety and whereabouts played into the decision to diplomatically boycott the Games. Peng Shuai is one of China’s top tennis players. After accusing Vice-Premier Zhange Gaoli of coercing her into having sexual relations on social media, she virtually disappeared for several weeks. She then retracted her claims via an email to CGTN, and photos of her began appearing. The IOC spoke with Peng Shuai on a video call. The authenticity of her truthfulness and whereabouts after her disappearance have all been questioned.

A diplomatic boycott means the countries will not send any delegates to the Olympics. This decision will allow athletes to still compete while taking a political stance against China. The IOC has maintained political neutrality, as necessary in the Olympic Charter.

Sponsor silence

Despite the human rights violations, the TOP program is silently sticking by the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Historically, the 100-day countdown to the Opening Ceremony marks an explosion of marketing campaigns for the sponsors. For example, Coca-Cola is only running an Olympic advertising campaign in China this year.

During the July hearing of the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, Coca-Cola was asked why the company has not commented on human rights violations in China but opposed Georgia’s controversial voting law last year. In response, Coca-Cola’s executive explained that the corporation follows and supports the athletes. Additionally, Intel Corp. quickly retracted its statement agreeing that a genocide is occurring in Xinjiang. Since then, silence has remained on behalf of TOP.

As the games commence on February 4, 2022, the world will wait to see if any sponsors will address the human rights violations. From the look of it, sponsors will continue to keep quiet.