It’s becoming commonplace now. Whether it’s the NBA, the Olympics, or the Australian Open, China is the boss. There is simply no other country that demands, and receives, the respect that China gets on a constant basis.
Sometimes the reasons are financial. That makes it easy to understand, and almost pragmatic if not rational. NBA falls into this category. After one of its team’s coaches stood up for Hong Kong protesters, China banned NBA from broadcasting games there. In October, after a year-long blackout, China Central Television announced that it would return to airing NBA games.
But what explains companies sitting on the sidelines when China demands acquiescence to rules totally foreign to them, namely censorship. Earlier this month, Xi Jinping said that athletes will be banned from mentioning anything political during the Winter Olympics, which start next month in the “skiing and skating mecca” of Beijing.
“Any behavior or speeches that are against the Olympic spirit, and especially against Chinese laws and regulations are also subjected to punishment,” Yang Shu, the deputy director-general of the international relations department of the Beijing Olympic organizing committee, said on January 19. Yang said the International Olympic Committee (IOC) also had its own penalties for violations of Rule 50 of the Olympic charter, which bans any kind of “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” at any venue during the Games.
The IOC said nothing, of course. Rule 50 gives them an out.
Olympic sponsors Coca-Cola, Visa, and AirBnB also said nothing.
Athletes are in a tough spot. They just want to compete and be apolitical.
Companies and institutions of the West, on the other hand, are going along with the CCP’s wishes. They’ve never once challenged it, even in a public statement. And if they did say something, they’d probably recoil soon as China found out about it. Olympic sponsor Intel did exactly that last year.
It’s not that there isn’t precedent for companies using corporate diplomacy to take a stand – or protect their market share – through pulling their support on an athletic mainstage. In July of 2021, just days before the Olympics opening ceremony, Toyota pulled its Japan advertising plans amid public dissatisfaction with the Japanese government and Olympic leadership moving ahead with the summer games amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. Fans were not allowed to attend.
While Toyota kept advertisements in North America, it pulled its ads in Japan as a symbol of disapproval as well as siding with an unhappy public concerned about the decision for the games to move forward.
As a side note, it was just before the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo when the IOC banned South African athletes from participating. Surely the athletes were not the orchestrators of the country’s apartheid policies but banned they were nevertheless.
Today, the IOC is not playing politics, and companies – which take a knee on hot-button political issues – are playing by different rules when it comes to China.
Emmy-award winning NBC broadcaster, Bob Costas, was on CNN’s Reliable Sources last week where he told host Brian Stelter that the IOC “deserves scorn” for picking China again to host the Winter Olympics.
Stelter: What are you hearing from your friends at NBC about the unique challenges in covering the Beijing games?
Costas: No one could have anticipated Covid, no matter what the venue is, but the IOC deserves all of the disdain and the disgust that comes their way for going back to China. They’re shameless about this stuff. The constant surveillance of everybody, the lack of press freedoms. We had that feeling in Beijing (Olympics) 2008. It’s been ramped up now.
The Olympics, like the Super Bowl, draw a huge television audience. It’s great for ad revenue in an industry increasingly Balklanized by new players in the market — from YouTube to Netflix. The televised event is also a great promotional tool for the host country. China will be using that to its full advantage.
Stelter: So we’re going to mention what’s going on with human rights abuses, but we are just going to move on quickly to the games.
Costas: I have no inside information…but they will acknowledge the issues and address them only if something cannot be ignored during the games. Yes, it’s a sports event. But it’s a cultural event. It’s a travel log. All of that is reduced in China.
NBC is not sending broadcasters to China to cover the games. That’s not because of the political landscape. They said it was due to Covid.
For the sports media, Costas said, “There is now a greater understanding of everything that China represents. Obviously, there are other human rights abusers around the world. But given China’s size, influence, and resources, you can make a very good case that China is very high on the list of the worst human rights abusers. People are very aware of it now. The IOC does not approve of political statements at the Olympics. That genie has to be out of the bottle a little bit. It has to be.”
Meanwhile, the organizations and the corporate sponsors are happy to oblige the wishes of the CCP.
Most recently, the Australian Open (AO) banned anyone from holding banners and wearing shirts with the message: “Where is Peng Shuai?” – one of China’s star tennis players who has gone missing after accusing a CCP strongman named Zhang Gaoli of pressuring her into sex.
Tennis icon Martin Navratilova instantly complained to the sports media covering the AO, calling it a “pathetic” move, and said that the organizers, including the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), were “capitulating” to China.
“This is not a political statement, this is a human rights statement,” she said on the Tennis Channel. “Chances are Peng Shuai may be playing here but she couldn’t get out of the country. Anyway, I think they’re wrong on this. The ATP was pretty weak on this. The IOC, well we know where they are. You have total capitulation on this issue from the Australians, letting China dictate what they do at their own (event).”
The AO later reversed their decision, likely thanks to the very public outcry from Navratilova.
Lastly, the fact that the Olympics are about to start when two cities (Tianjin and Xi’an) in China just recently lifted another Covid lockdown, and Beijing is back to imposing restrictions on people, should be cause for concern. The pandemic began in China.
The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics will likely be one of the most problematic, politicized games since the 1960s Black Power movements and the Olympics in Nazi Germany at the onset of the Jewish Holocaust.
It’s not a sports company, but Beijing Olympics sponsor AirBnB in particular is all about promoting anti-racism activism at home, but the activist slogan “silence is violence” gets completely lost on them when it comes to Muslim’s living in captivity in Xinjiang, something the U.S. State Department has called a “genocide”.
If just one of these companies spoke out like Navratilova, they might actually have an impact, at least on the issue of freedom of speech and censorship imposed by the CCP outside of its own borders. At a minimum, one would think that would not be tolerated by Western organizations and institutions.
The responsibility goes beyond the distrusted IOC, the corporate sponsors, and the media partners, and may extend to consumers and viewers alike. Everyone who’ll be watching the Olympic games has a responsibility to become educated about the bigger story of China, and its growing influence on powerful corporations and institutions of the West.
Speaking on his new HBO show “Consider This” in early August 2021, Costas said this about the Beijing Olympics and the world of sports:
“Socially conscious American athletes, who sometimes offer sweeping condemnations of their own imperfect country, while turning a blind eye to the monstrous crimes of a regime they, Nike, the NBA, and other sports entities are all in bed with, and are loathe to offend.”