Romney Says Olympic Sponsors Are Concerned about Their Brand Images

Mitt Romney, president and CEO of the organizing committee for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, says China should take “symbolic action” to let the world know it is willing to listen to their concerns about its human rights record.

May 5, 2008

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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While China wanted to use the 2008 Beijing Olympics as its coming-out party, so far the event has been used by activists to protest China’s poor record over issues ranging from human rights to the environment. Republican Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, who also served as president and CEO of the organizing committee for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, says China should take some action that would “signal to the world that they, as a government, are willing to listen to the concerns of the world, and at the same time recognize the interests of their local population.” Romney says companies sponsoring the Beijing Olympics are very concerned that what they hoped would be a positive experience for their brand could become a negative experience. But even as these corporations show their human rights concerns publicly, and privately encourage China to take correct action, “financially, they’re locked in.”

You’ve had first-hand experience with trying to “save the games.” You were called in to manage the Winter Games in 2002 when it was undergoing an image crisis as well as a financial crisis. What should China do to save its image before the Summer Games kick off in August?

The Olympics is a great opportunity for a nation to showcase its own culture and the beauty of its environment and the strength of its economy to the world. And this is an opportunity for China. The Olympics, of course, is about sport and about athletes. It’s not about China. And yet, in some respects, by virtue of the world coming there and China hosting the games, it’s an opportunity for China to put its best foot forward. Unfortunately, China has not done that at this stage. They’ve made great efforts in a whole series of ways—teaching people not to spit in public and not to cut in lines and so forth. Many things that they knew they wanted to improve to create a positive image.

But they did not think about the potential for the world to react negatively to their purchase of vast amounts of oil from the Sudanese and the repression of the Tibetans. And in my view, these are not issues which they should push aside, but rather are issues they should concentrate on and show that they understand the sensitivity and the importance of these issues to the world and to the interests of humanity. They should take some action—some symbolic action—that shows they are listening and they are trying to improve the relations in each of these settings. This, for instance, would mean such things as deciding to not provide military equipment and armament to the Sudanese. That would be a very powerful statement. A decision to sit down with the Dalai Lama, or some other symbolic event, would signal to the world that they, as a government, are willing to listen to the concerns of the world, and at the same time recognize the interests of their local population.

You have said President Bush should not skip the ceremonies in Beijing, and there are other ways to make political statements. Do you think politics should be kept out of the Olympics? And is it even possible to do so?

Of course politics will emerge as a factor in any event of significant public attention. But I would like to see the Olympics remain as a sporting event which is outside the world of politics and business—that instead focuses on the athletes. The Olympic Games are about showcasing great qualities of the human spirit—about showing young athletes that compete with one another in remarkable ways. I’d like that to continue. I hope that it does so, and that we don’t have it become bogged down in the ideologies and politics of the host country. The Olympic committee does not choose the site for the Olympics based on the politics of the host country. And it’s important for the Olympic movement, as well as the host country, to take action to try and depoliticize the events in a host city, and to make sure that the Olympics itself concentrates on the athletes.

One reason many cities bid to host the games is because it’s a big moneymaker. But there have been concerns that the protests could hurt Olympic sponsors. Do you think they will cut back this time and in the future it will be more difficult to attract them?

The Olympic sponsorships are typically secured many years in advance of the actual games. Most of the major Olympic sponsorships from companies like McDonald’s and Panasonic were agreed to many years ago by those companies. And they are sponsorships which last not just in Beijing but last over multiple Olympic games. So the money is in place. It will not disappear, even if Panasonic, for instance, said, “We want to withdraw from the games”—and that’s not what they’re saying—but even if they wanted to do that, they would not be able to do so. The financial commitment to the Olympic movement has been made long ago, and is enforceable by law.

The companies, however, have to be very concerned that what they hoped would be a positive experience for their brand could become a negative experience if the Beijing Olympics become too focused on politics and ideology and not focused on the athletes. And those corporations right now are very concerned and hope that Beijing takes appropriate action to do some of the symbolic things that would make the games a capstone for progress in China, rather than an example of what’s going wrong in China.

Are the companies taking any action so that their brands don’t suffer?

You see the companies doing things on two fronts. One is on a private, confidential front, where in their communications with the Beijing organizing committee, they can express their views about what actions might be helpful to improve the image of the games and what things should be done from a human rights standpoint. That’s something they’re likely to do on a private basis because they recognize that taking action which in any way disrespects China—or is seen as being disrespectful or “taking away face,” if you will, from China—would have the exact opposite effect than had been intended.

At the same you’re seeing these companies become more involved in global human rights movements and efforts. I saw GE, for instance, which through their NBC affiliate will broadcast the games, was awarded a very high mark from the Save Darfur organization because of their involvement financially in helping promote the end of genocide in Darfur. So corporations can show their human rights concerns and issues publicly. At the same time, they can encourage privately the correct Chinese action. But financially, they’re locked in.

The controversies surrounding this year’s games have led many experts to say that the Olympics now no longer stand for the spirit they once did, and maybe they should end. Do you think the 2008 Olympics have tarnished the image of the games irrevocably?

I don’t at this stage believe that. I believe that the Olympic Games, ultimately, are about the young people who compete with one another. There will always be a concern about the host country and the policies and ideology of the host country. We remember that President Jimmy Carter forbid our athletes from going to Moscow. I thought that was a mistake. The Olympics are not about the host country. The Olympics are about the athletes of the world coming together in peace and competing and demonstrating to the people of the world that nations that are competitive can nonetheless be cooperative when it comes to sport. And I do not believe that the Olympic movement will be set back. I believe that the games will be successful in future cities. But I hope, from the standpoint of China and the advance of human rights, that the Olympics are able to exert a positive influence and to encourage China to take meaningful and important action towards relieving the stress on the Tibetans and eliminating or ending the outrageous genocide amongst the Sudanese.

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