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Controversy for Olympic Sponsors
Corporate sponsors for this year's Olympics, including several of note to the restaurant industry, find themselves in a tough spot.
Olympic sponsors find controversy in China.

As the Olympic torch travels across the globe amid protests about China's human rights record and the recent crackdown in Tibet, one quick-service giant and other companies upon which the industry relies for products and services are finding themselves caught up in the controversy.

McDonald's Corporation, The Coca-Cola Company, and Visa, among others, have shelled out millions to attach their names to this year's Summer Games, slated to run from August 8–24 in Beijing. As The Olympic Partner (TOP) sponsors, the companies have exclusive marketing rights to this year's events, affording them use of Olympic imagery for products, preferential access to Olympic broadcast advertising, on-site concession opportunities, acknowledgement of their sponsorship through a recognition program, and other benefits. Essentially, they have a window to the billions of people in more than 200 countries worldwide that follow the games, according to the International Olympic Committee's web site.

But this year, in addition to that access, the sponsors are also taking heat from human rights organizations and others who say they should be doing more to denounce China's treatment of Tibetans; the country's close ties to Sudan, where government soldiers have carried out the widespread killing of civilians in the Darfur region since 2004; and its dismal human rights record in general.

Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based organization that conducts fact-finding investigations into human rights abuses around the world, has had meetings with Coca-Cola in attempts to convince the company to use its stage as an Olympic sponsor to address the human rights situation in China, says Minky Worden, the group's media director. She says Human Rights Watch had hoped the company would speak out against the limited press freedom, forced evictions of Chinese citizens prior to the Olympics, and crackdowns on civil society in Tibet and the rest of China. Even so, the company has thus far refused to take a stand publicly on the issue.

In lieu of an interview for this story, Coca-Cola provided the following statement:

"The Coca-Cola Company joins others in expressing deep concern for the situation on the ground in Tibet. We know that all parties involved hope for a peaceful resolution.

"While it would be an inappropriate role for sponsors to comment on the political situation of individual nations, as the longest-standing sponsor of the Olympic Movement, we firmly believe that the Olympics are a force for good. Since 1928, we have supported the Olympic Games wherever they’ve been held, and have witnessed first-hand the cultural, economic and social benefits they bring to the host city and country.

"We remain committed to supporting the Torch Relay, which provides a unique opportunity to share the Olympic values of unity, pride, optimism and inspiration with people all over the world."

Worden acknowledged that Coca-Cola made a point of engaging Human Rights Watch in discussions about the company's stance but says the group is ultimately disappointed with Coca-Cola's decision not to speak out.

"In its corporate social responsibility policies, Coca-Cola seems to be willing to take up these issues, but in the face of abuses in China, they're proving to be less willing to act when given the opportunity," she says.

Human Rights Watch has sent letters to all of the Olympic sponsors, including McDonald's and Visa, since September 2007 in attempts to convince them to speak out about human rights abuses in China. So far, the group says, none have acted on their recommendations, though a meeting is scheduled with Visa, which issued the following statement for this story.

“Visa Inc. and its employees have a deeply rooted concern for the well-being and advancement of people worldwide. As such, we have the deepest sympathy for people suffering from human rights violations and hope for a swift resolution.

“While we continue to express our concerns to the International Olympic Committee on this topic, we believe a lasting resolution can only be achieved through governmental or diplomatic channels and not by Olympic Games sponsors. The issues being raised around the Beijing Olympic Games are linked to complex international and domestic issues best addressed by national or international governing bodies, including the United Nations.

“Visa sponsors the Olympics and its athletes, but has no official role working with the Chinese government or local organizing committee, BOCOG. That role is served by the IOC, which is in the best position to directly address issues related to the 2008 Olympic Games or the selection of Beijing as the host city.

“At their core, the Games are about human achievement. Visa is proud of the role it can play as sponsor of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, as well as sponsoring individual athletes worldwide. Since 1986, our contributions have allowed hundreds of athletes to train, travel and represent their countries. Through Visa's many sponsorships, we have seen that sport can be a unifying force that peacefully brings people, communities and nations together—and enriches people's lives.”

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