Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Countdown to Beijing – as the clock ticks -- surveys and athletes say

With the start of the Beijing Games less than 72 hours away International Olympic Committee sponsors who invested a record $866 million in the IOC’s Olympic TOP program and an astounding $1.44 billion in global TV rights should be paying particular interest in the results Monday of a survey released by Harris Interactive/France 24/International Herald Tribune.

Harris Interactive/France 24/International Herald Tribune survey conducted online by Harris Interactive among a total of 6,620 adults aged 16 to 64 within France, Germany, Great Britain, Spain, the United States, and adults aged 18 to 64 in Italy, between July 2 and 14, 2008 finds that:

Only a majority of Spaniards (55%) and half of Italians (49%) feel it is a good thing that the Olympics are taking place in China this summer. Half of French adults (49%) and 47 percent of Germans believe it is a bad thing. Two in five Americans (41%) believe it is a good thing while almost three in ten (28%) believe it is a bad thing and 31 percent are not sure. For Britons, the largest number are not sure (37%) followed by those who believe it is a bad thing (35%) and then a good thing (28%);

Majorities in all six countries (from 51% in Great Britain to 73% in France, Italy and the U.S.) believe that their country should not boycott the Olympics;

A relative majority of French adults (44%) believes their officials should boycott the opening ceremonies while a majority of adults in the U.S. (56%), Spain (55%) and Italy (53%) do not.

Germans and British adults are more torn – three in ten Britons believe the ceremonies should be boycotted (30%) while just over that (31%) believe they should not be boycotted. In
Germany, two in five believe they should not be boycotted (40%) while just under that (38%) believe they should be;

Majorities in the U.S (66%), Italy (66%), Germany (63%) and France (58%) as well as just under half of Spaniards (47%) and two in five (39%) Britons believe that politicians from their country should not be allowed to make statements against the Olympics at the games;

Half or more of adults in France (65%), Italy (62%), Germany (60%), Great Britain (50%) and Spain (50%) as well as 46 percent of Americans believe that athletes should be allowed to publicly express their position if they want, enforcing the idea that this is about the athletes; and,

Majorities in France (62%), Italy (52%) and Germany (51%) as well as a plurality of Spaniards (45%) and two in five Britons (39%) and Americans (38%) all say that their country should not attend the Olympics without any protests or boycotts.

So What?

This week athletes from around the world will convene in China for the start of the 2008 Summer Olympics. Looking at the current situation in China, including their involvement in Tibet, there are various things countries could do at the Olympics. Adults in the five largest European countries and the United States may disagree on exactly what should be done, but strong numbers in all six countries do believe that their country should not attend without some kind of protest or boycott.

The main consensus seems to be that if something is done, it should be done by the athletes – the Olympics seem to be perceived as “games” not a political event, so this would be the most appropriate type of response. For two weeks the eyes of the world will be focused on China – from the pageantry of the Opening Ceremonies though the individual sporting events, until the torch is passed to the next host country at the Closing Ceremonies - and how other countries, their politicians and their athletes react will be watched closely.

This Harris Interactive/France 24/International Herald Tribune study was conducted online by Harris Interactive among a total of 6,620 adults (aged 16-64) within France (1,073), Germany (992), Great Britain (1,075), Spain (1,014) and the United States (1,053) and adults (aged 18-64) in Italy (1,013) between July 2 and 14, 2008. Figures for age, sex, education, region and Internet usage were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.

Fascinating is the belief that “if something is done, it should be done by the athletes”. The 1968 Olympics Black Power salute was a noted black nationalist protest and one of the most overtly political statements in the 110 year history of the modern Olympic Games. African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos performed their Power to the People salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

On the morning of October 16, 1968, American athlete Smith won the 200 metre race race in a then-world-record time of 19.83 seconds, with Australia's Peter Norman second with a time of 20.06 seconds, and American Carlos in third place with a time of 20.10 seconds. After the race was completed, the three went to collect their medals at the podium. The two American athletes received their medals shoeless, but wearing black socks, to represent black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride.

Carlos wore beads which he described "were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage."

All three athletes wore Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges, after Norman expressed sympathy with their ideals. Sociologist Harry Edwards, the founder of the OPHR, had urged black athletes to boycott the games; reportedly, the actions of Smith and Carlos on October 16, 1968, were inspired by Edwards' arguments.

Both Americans intended on bringing black gloves to the event, but Carlos forgot his, leaving them in the Olympic Village. It was the Australian, Peter Norman, who suggested Carlos wore Smith's left-handed glove, this being the reason behind him raising his left hand, as opposed to his right, differing from the traditional Black Power salute.

When "The Star-Spangled Banner" played, Smith and Carlos delivered the salute with heads bowed, a gesture which became front page news around the world. As they left the podium they were booed by the crowd. Smith later said "If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight."

IOC president Avery Brundage deemed a domestic political statement unfit for the apolitical, international forum the Olympic Games was supposed to be. In an immediate response to their actions, he ordered Smith and Carlos suspended from the U.S. team and banned from the Olympic Village. When the US Olympic Committee refused, Avery threatened to ban the entire US track team. This threat led to the two athletes being expelled from the Games.

A spokesperson for the organization said it was “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.”

On the eve of the Beijing Games, Carlos offered these comments to the Associated Press, “I evaluated, researched and studied my moves in terms of why I thought it was necessary for me to make a statement in Mexico City,” Carlos said Friday at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. “All I can say is any athlete, from whatever part of the world, they have to do the same. They have to evaluate, they have to study and then they have to go into their moral fabric and make their decision as to whether they're concerned about medals or whether they're concerned about humanity.”

There is every possibility, even a probability many of the athletes personal belief system will be tested throughout the Beijing Games on a new level not seen since Smith and Carlos delivered their message to the world at the 1968 Mexico City Games.

On July 29 a pro-Tibet group purchased a full-page ad in The New York Times urging Olympic athletes to use the Beijing Games as a platform to bring attention to the cause.

The ad, sponsored by Students for a Free Tibet, appeared in the front section of last Tuesday’s New York Times.

In large type, it reads, “At every Olympics, there is one athlete who ends up inspiring the world with their courage and character. We’re hoping that athlete is reading this.”

The ad referenced the web site www.AthleteWanted.org, which included suggested actions for athletes such as raising the Tibetan flag during a victory lap or shaving their heads to show solidarity with Tibetan monks and nuns.

“Olympic athletes have the platform and the power to inspire the world,” Tenzin Dorjee, deputy director of Students for a Free Tibet, said in a news release. “At the Beijing Games, we believe athletes have the opportunity to inspire not only with their athletic performances, but also by standing up for what is right by supporting human rights and freedom for Tibet.”

Ten days ago International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge announced that he wouldn’t speak in detail about human rights in China for diplomatic reasons.

“Of course I unquestionably value human rights,” he was quoted as saying in French sports weekly L’Equipe Magazine.

“Reasons of State (raison d’Etat) forbids me to express myself in detail on that subject,” he said in an interview two weeks before the start of the Beijing Games.

“I have to be careful about what I do and what I say. I am at the head of an organization. My duty is to make the Olympics a success and let the athletes express themselves freely. I am criticized. And I answer that I am ready to take blows in order to protect the athletes.

“In view of my responsibilities, I have lost some of my freedom of speech,” the Belgian said.

The results of the Harris Interactive shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Interest in the 2008 Beijing Games isn’t nearly what it was expected to be and that has little to do with the popularity of the Olympics and everything to do with where the Games are being held.

Bloomberg News reported the Olympics are less popular with Europeans than four years ago because of negative publicity surrounding Tibet, the Beijing Games torch-relay protests and pollution, according to a survey released Friday.
Sport + Markt AG's “Sponsoring 21” study found that interest in Germany, Italy, France, Spain and the U.K. had “decreased significantly.” Britain showed the biggest drop, with 36 percent of those surveyed declaring an interest in the Games, down from 52 percent in 2004, when the Olympics were held in Athens.

While historically interest usually rises during an Olympic year, protests along the torch-relay route following China's crackdown of protesters in Tibet and public discussion about Beijing's pollution led to a decline in 2008, Sport + Markt told Bloomberg media.

“Negative publicity regarding China and Tibet as well as the environmental issue and discussion on Beijing's air pollution did its job,” Gareth Moore, Sport + Markt's U.K. director, said in a statement.

Still, more than half of U.K. residents surveyed said they would follow the Games because London will host the next edition in 2012. Sixty-four percent of Britons are already looking forward to the London Games, when negative publicity is unlikely to dominate the media, Moore said.

This current drop in interest levels “shows the importance of the reputation and political situation of the host country,” he added.

Even the host nation is experiencing some apathy toward the Aug. 8-24 Games. A poll by the Ogilvy Group released yesterday showed that Beijing residents are less excited about the Olympics compared with eight months ago on concerns over crowds, traffic flow and possible terrorist attacks.

Ogilvy's Project 2008 Poll showed 69 percent of Beijing residents surveyed are “extremely excited” about the Games, down from 79 percent of those polled in January.

One Olympian who will be in Beijing (a gold medalist), didn’t believe he’d get a Visa that would allow him to enter China. Joey Cheek who won a gold medal at the 2006 Torino Games in speedskating will be a part of “Team Darfur”. Cheek, who won gold and silver medals at the 2006 Olympics in Torino , co-founded Team Darfur with UCLA water polo player Brad Greiner.

"As an athlete who has been to two Olympics, I think I can say that it's not the Olympics that are causing this problem, but it is the Olympics that can be part of this resolution," Cheek told ESPN.com. "On the whole, the Olympics provide a lot of good."

Cheeks told ESPN he understands why athletes get involved in politics -- and why they don't. It is part of the reason the Team Darfur Web site does not call for an Olympic boycott. It's also part of the reason some athletes show their sign of support for Team Darfur simply as "soccer player" instead of by actual name. In some countries where freedom of speech doesn't exist, athletes can't be as proactive as they can in the United States.

"Personally, I'd love to see more athletes involved in causes they believe in," Cheek said in the ESPN report. "You may not believe in the causes I believe in, but believe in something."

U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Jim Scherr told reporters during April’s USOC Olympic Summit in Chicago that athletes can do "what they want to do" so long as they don't interfere with Article 51 of the International Olympic Committee charter. Article 51 states that "no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

The British Olympic Committee ESPN reported attempted to quiet its athletes from making any political problems by making them sign contracts that would prevent them from speaking about China's human rights issues. The plan was thwarted almost immediately as it hit the media.

The most visible American athlete in Beijing will be swimmer Michael Phelps. Phelps will try and break the record of seven gold medals won in one games by American Mark Spitz set at the 1972 Munich Games. Phelps a swimmer will complete during the first week of the Games.

When questioned by the media if he believed he had an extra responsibility to be involved in world issues because of his high profile, Phelps told ESPN, "We're very aware of what's going on," and added that "being an Olympian was always a dream of mine as a kid. … That's what this year is about."

Phelps' focus on swimming is appreciated, even by Olympic activists like Cheek according to ESPN.

"Unquestionably in 2002, if you would have asked me if I would've done what I'm doing now, I would've looked at you like you had three heads," Cheek said. "I wish more people would become involved, but I'm not necessarily critical of people who don't. There are different pressures out there and that is your priority."

Phelps profile, visibility and is drive to set an Olympic record have made him the most marketable on the eve of the Beijing Games. The 2008 Games will likely not produce endorsement opportunities for many athletes and those like Phelps have a tough choice to make. Create their biggest potential bang for their buck by heading to Beijing strictly to compete or make a political statement and risk losing endorsement opportunities

The few athletes who did speak out, however, have attracted a great deal of interest from the media. Jessica Mendoza, for example, is an outfielder for the U.S. women's softball team. She's also a member of Team Darfur. A few weeks ago, she signed a letter calling for Sudan to follow the Olympic Truce.

At the April USOC summit, Mendoza's coach, Mike Candrea, joked with her about not making any headlines. Still, Mendoza felt free to use the summit as a political platform.

"As an athlete, I feel like I have some visibility," said Mendoza, who was on the 2004 Olympic team that captured gold in Athens in an ESPN report. "I'm a passionate person and when I talk about Darfur, I feel like there's nothing controversial. I'm talking about humanity. To me, this is why I truly love it. The Olympics has been a positive political platform.

"I really want to go [to Beijing] and make a difference."

During these Olympics, Mendoza told ESPN she is looking forward to sitting in the dining hall with other Olympians and discussing politics. One of her goals is educating others and becoming more educated through them. One of the highlights for any athlete who completes in an Olympic Games is the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet other athletes from around the world in the Olympic Village.

She told ESPN she didn't get involved politically until she got to Stanford. A native of Camarillo, Calif., Mendoza pretty much spent her summers playing softball and hanging out at the beach. When she arrived at Stanford, she met friends who spent their summers providing medical care in Africa.

"I came into college at 17 and not having a clue," Mendoza said. "I began to feel so insignificant, and I wanted to change that."

According to ESPN she became an American studies major and spent a good chunk of her time taking history classes. As part of the Olympic team, she's done everything from leading political discussions on the team bus to encouraging her teammates to register to vote. She's traveled to Afghanistan and said she had planned to visit refugee camps near Darfur, but her family didn't want her to travel there.

"Nobody's ever tried to quiet me, but I've had many, many hints," Mendoza said. "The hardest thing for my coaches is my influence on my teammates. Right around the time of Chicago , people were getting nervous."

Perhaps the biggest detriment to athletes speaking out is the fear of financial repercussions. So many companies have a global presence in China, and they worry about signing endorsements with athletes who might speak out against the country. The shelf life for most Olympians is short, and opportunities to be financially rewarded are, too. Why say something that might jeopardize that?

Mendoza is aware of financial risks, and she took the initiative to contact her sponsors, mainly Nike and Louisville Slugger, before she went public with her political views. Both Nike and Louisville Slugger remain a part of Mendoza’s team.

"My own agent said, 'You get involved in this stuff and sponsors might not want to sign you,'" Mendoza said. “This is the world you're dealing with and they're not going to want to touch you with a 10-foot pole.'"

John Carlos – gone but always remembered when it comes to athletes having a consensus and standing for what they believe in.

"I'm concerned with humanity, the human race," the 63-year-old said. "I'm not concerned with medals. Medals will tarnish, but humanity will go on."

But he acknowledged the fallout was tremendous and lasted well after the Olympics ended.

"Bigots came out, racists came out," said Carlos, who's now counseling kids in California. "They didn't particularly like that I was a black man stepping up to the plate, saying I was concerned with humanity. ... My whole thing is that in order for healing to come about, you have to recognize what's happening in order to make tomorrow better than yesterday."

If companies have concerns about how athletes they sponsor might represent themselves in Beijing should these same companies not have similar concerns how the Chinese represent their values and how the actions of the Chinese government might reflect on those companies.

Clearly as the results of several major surveys released in the last few days indicate there is a great deal of awareness relating to the Beijing Games and more notably for the Games sponsors China’s politics and how they will impact the Beijing Games. Survey says – Olympic sponsors and broadcasters would be well advised to pay close attention.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: ESPN, the New York Times, the Associated Press and Wikipedia

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