Sport and politics shouldn’t mix — but when it comes to boycotting the Beijing Olympics for political reasons, better for companies and advertisers to do so than athletes or diplomats.
Those are among the findings in a Grid/Morning Consult poll of American attitudes toward the Olympic Games — a survey that looked at sport, diplomacy, the U.S.-China relationship and the upcoming Winter Games in Beijing.
Following a U.S.-led diplomatic boycott of the Games over a range of Chinese government policies, governments and corporations have been pressured to do more to protest China’s behavior. While poll respondents agreed by a 72-12 margin with the statement that sports and politics should not mix, there was support for the U.S. decision to keep its official diplomatic delegation away from the Beijing Games. Fifty percent were in favor; only 18 percent opposed the boycott.
That view reflects broad antipathy toward China; 66 percent of respondents said they viewed China unfavorably, while only 15 percent said they had a favorable impression. And only 28 percent agreed that it had been “appropriate” to select China to host the Games. The leading driver of these views was China’s human rights record — cited by 71 percent of those polled — far ahead of economic and political concerns.
The poll findings mirror bipartisan sentiment in Washington, where criticism of China has focused on its treatment of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, its encroachment on civil liberties in Hong Kong and its attitudes toward human rights more broadly.
“The American public is broadly supportive of a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, with support driven more by Americans’ concerns over China’s human rights track record than broader concerns linked to economic and military competition between China and the U.S.,” said Jason I. McMann, head of geopolitical risk analysis at Morning Consult.
In terms of what Olympics-related actions might actually influence Chinese government behavior, a corporate pullback was the most popular choice. Fifty-four percent said that companies should withdraw their sponsorship of the Games — a measure that respondents felt would be more effective than the diplomatic boycott. Morning Consult’s McMann added that the results suggest that companies who don’t pull their advertising could face headwinds among consumers.
The headwinds may come, but global Olympic sponsors have decided — unanimously — to stick with their commitments to the Beijing Games. The top 13 sponsors of the Beijing Games have contracts with the International Olympic Committee totaling more than $1 billion. Despite pressure from rights organizations and members of Congress, the leading American corporate sponsors of the Games — including Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble and Visa (“official credit card of the Olympic Games”) are keeping their support intact. Foreign-based corporate sponsors have made the same decision.
Several companies have cited sponsorship agreements with the IOC that cover multiple Olympics, the implication being that dropping out of the Beijing Games would violate those long-term deals. Sponsors have no doubt factored in the almost unmatched value of an event that reaches billions of viewers around the world and the risk of upsetting their image inside China. Indeed, Chinese consumers have recently boycotted Western companies for protesting conditions in China. (H&M said it lost $74 million as a result of such a boycott, following its own decision to ban cotton produced in Xinjiang.)
“The space to please both sides has evaporated,” Center for Strategic and International Studies scholar Jude Blanchette recently told the New York Times. “When choosing who to upset, it’s either a bad week or two of press in the U.S. versus a very real and justified fear that you’ll lose market access in China.”
Athletes and sports fans have long argued against the intrusion of politics into the Games, but the intermingling of politics and Olympic sport has a long history. And political tensions have often played out on the Olympic stage.
The 1968 Mexico City Games are perhaps best remembered for a moment when politics came to the medal stand; American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos took to the podium after the 200-meter race (they won gold and bronze, respectively) and raised their fists in solidarity with what was then known as the Black Solidarity Movement. The 1980 and 1984 Olympics saw politically motivated boycotts by the U.S. (of the Moscow games) and the Soviets (of the subsequent Los Angeles Olympics). Perhaps no global sporting event carried political baggage to match the Games of the 11th Summer Olympics in Berlin in 1936, which Adolf Hitler turned into a showcase for his Nazi Party and ideals of racial supremacy.
The Grid/Morning Consult poll did find support for the notion that the Olympic Games can bridge divides between nations. A majority of those questioned — by 55 percent to 22 percent — agreed with that statement.
Indeed, while this may or may not be what the respondents had in mind, the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games were the scene of a landmark ice-breaking in the relationship between North Korea and South Korea — President Moon Jae-in shaking hands with the sister of dictator Kim Jong Un. It was the first time in the six decades since the Korean War that a member of the North Korean dynasty had visited the South, and it paved the way for an eventual summit between Moon and Kim.
For all the tensions that continue to surround the Olympics — China’s rights record, the recent controversy over Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, the initial criticism of Tokyo officials for pressing ahead with last summer’s games in the midst of the pandemic — the poll found broad support for the Olympic Games as an institution. Sixty-five percent had a favorable impression of the Olympics, against 20 percent who did not; an even larger majority (79-10) said the tradition of the Games should continue.
That may give some comfort to the IOC, and the Games’ hosts, with one caveat: Only 50 percent of respondents said they plan to watch the Beijing Games. Sponsors will be disappointed to hear that.