At a government hearing, U.S. Olympic sponsors resist calls to withhold support from Beijing 2022

The United States’ Congressional-Executive Commission on China questions executives from Airbnb, Coca-Cola, Intel, Procter & Gamble and Visa

Executives from five of the 14 IOC TOP sponsors attended the hearing on Tuesday. (IOC)
Executives from five of the 14 IOC TOP sponsors attended the hearing on Tuesday. (IOC)

The United States’ Congressional-Executive Commission on China held a hearing on Tuesday where representatives of five major U.S. Olympic sponsors were questioned about their support of the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing; which have been marred by reports of genocide against the Uyghur people in China’s Xinjiang region.

A bipartisan and bicameral government body, the Commission on China heard testimony from Airbnb, Coca-Cola, Intel, Procter & Gamble and Visa executives. The hearing followed a letter the Commission sent to the IOC last week urging President Thomas Bach to cancel or move the Games in 2022, which the IOC subsequently downplayed.

“We want to hear how Olympic sponsors can help us deny the Chinese government its propaganda coup. Support inspirational athletes without channeling the money through an IOC that has demonstrated little regard for internationally recognized human rights. Influence the IOC to improve its policies so that the Olympics are never again awarded to a country engaged in genocide and gross violations of human rights”, the Commission’s Chair, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, explained at the start of the hearing.

Throughout questioning, all five worldwide Olympic sponsors reiterated their commitment to supporting athletes and sports federations while largely avoiding the topic of genocide within China.

“Across our sponsorships, our credo is simple: we follow the athletes. We do not select venues, we do not endorse cities, countries or governments. We sponsor events and competitors. We ensure that the vast majority of our funding flows to the athletes”, said Global Vice President for Human Rights at Coca-Cola, Paul Lalli, his sentiment echoed by the other four representatives.

A woman holds a Chinese national flag next to a countdown clock showing 200 days left to the opening of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, in Beijing, China July 19, 2021. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang
A woman holds a Chinese national flag next to a countdown clock showing 200 days left to the opening of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, in Beijing, China July 19, 2021. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Pressed by members of the Commission about their views on the Games being hosted by a country committing genocide, none of the company executives overtly criticized China’s actions in Xinjiang or called upon the IOC to remove the Games from the country; despite otherwise professing their dedication to human rights.

In one revealing exchange, Senator Merkley asked Airbnb’s Head of Olympics and Paralympics Partnership, David Holyoke, whether his company “rejects human rights practices like mass internment, forced labor, forced sterilization, religious repression, destruction of cultural and religious practice, arrest and intimidation of human rights defenders, and other violations of internationally recognized human rights”, all of which have been reported as occurring in Xinjiang.

“Thank you for that question. Human rights is core to our values and principles and discrimination has no place on our platform”, replied Holyoke.

“And all the things I just mentioned, you reject as inappropriate actions of government?”, pressed Merkley.

“Correct”.

“If you sign up for another IOC contract, will you insist that the IOC not assign the Olympic Games to any country engaged in genocide?”

“Our partnership with the IOC spans nine years, it’s not about any specific Games or city, we’ve had numerous conversations with the IOC about the importance of human rights, we’ve encouraged the IOC to be transparent and engage with host governments about this important matter”.

Commission Co-Chair Representative James McGovern, another Democrat, then asked the executives whether their companies would be willing to ask the IOC to postpone the Olympics until the Chinese government stops its atrocities, and to relocate if atrocities persist. While Intel’s Executive Vice President/General Counsel Steven R. Rogers said “yes”, the other four company representatives would not make that commitment.

“Sponsors like Visa have no say in the countries selected by the IOC to host the Games”, said Andrea Fairchild, Visa’s Senior Vice President of Global Sponsorship Strategy. “It has been that way for the entirety of our 35-year partnership and remains that way today. Indeed, the foundation of our sponsorship has always been supporting the incredible Olympic and Paralympic athletes and hopefuls in their journeys to achieve their dreams. As long as governments allow athletes to participate in the Games, we will be there to support them”.

US Rep. Jim McGovern (House.gov)
US Rep. Jim McGovern (House.gov)

The corporations’ reluctance to take specific action drew condemnation from McGovern, who stated “Everybody supports athletes. This hearing is not about supporting the athletes. It is about that we are dealing with something quite frankly that is beyond the pale”.

Representative Christopher Smith, the highest-ranking Republican on the Commission, also denounced what he saw as hypocrisy from the companies, saying “While I appreciate that several corporations have sent their representatives to testify at this hearing, I shake my head in dismay when I read their preening about the compliance with environmental, social and governance principles, and their virtue signaling about the support of Olympic athletes”. He then noted that only one of the five statements submitted to the Commission, from Steven Rogers of Intel, had acknowledged the situation in Xinjiang at all.

Asked by Rep. Smith whether the Chinese government had threatened restricted market access if they spoke up against China’s human rights abuses, all five company representatives denied this.

Not every member of the Commission was critical of the Olympic sponsors, however, with Independent Senator Angus King placing the blame for the situation instead on the IOC itself.

“It strikes me that we have the wrong set of witnesses here today. That our real beef is with the IOC in terms of how the [host city] decision was made, whether the decision is under review as it should be”.

“I must say, it bothers me that these companies, which have contractual relationships that span eight, ten or twelve years, in the case of Coca-Cola going back almost a hundred years, are being asked to essentially say ‘We’re going to boycott or insist on a change’’'.

Elaborating on this point, Steven Rogers of Intel noted that their contract with the IOC “includes penalties if we don’t live up to our side of the bargain, which is sponsorship and promotional marketing events that we participate in”. He further revealed that the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee had today “asked sponsors not to drop their sponsorships, because in their view doing so would hurt the athletes”.

While the hearing did not indicate that any sponsorship withdrawals or boycotts of the 2022 Winter Olympics would take place, it remains likely that the U.S. government will continue raising its concerns with the IOC as the Games draw nearer.

“We received the IOC’s response [to our letter] and they said they would do nothing, not even acknowledging the atrocities in China”, said Rep. McGovern.

“What is particularly galling to me about the IOC’s response is its cold indifference to a genocide. This is not a policy disagreement, this is not a trade dispute, this is not politics, this is not even a question about a particular system of government. This is about a genocide”.

The contents of the IOC response to the Commission have not been published, though IOC spokesperson Mark Adams, asked about the letter on Saturday, told a press conference that such issues are outside the organization’s purview.

“The Games for us are an important symbol of non-discrimination of rights and so on and we are determined to make sure the rights are respected in the context of the Games. That’s our role. The role of the governments and other international organizations is to deal with wider issues and obviously we encourage them to do that”, Adams said.

When asked for comment about Tuesday’s hearing with the IOC sponsors, Adams on Wednesday reiterated that stance, adding “Given the diverse participation in the Olympic Games, the IOC has to remain neutral. That’s clear.”

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