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In an era of corporate social responsibility, how can a multinational company participate as a patron and sponsor of the Olympic Games without tarnishing its image? Even a better question is who would have thought that sponsoring an organization like the Olympics could bring about negative stigma and public opinion?

Transcending politics, the Olympics were intended to assist in contributing to the building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play. Although in all fairness, I don’t think there was much in the way of corporate sponsorship envisioned in 1924.  

In an era where companies are expected to demonstrate social responsibility, sponsoring the Olympic Games in China - a country with questionable human rights and environmental practices - olympic sponsors can and should prepare for a backlash of some sort. Perhaps the Olympic Committee should expand the charter to request attending countries to impose a moratorium on corporate backlash during the Olympics;h although both sponsors and protest groups will agree that it’s hard to ignore such a huge stage. Branding experts have opined that backlash should have minimal impact on sponsors brands.

Case in point, Lenovo’s top tier sponsorship of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing China should astound no one. Lenovo is a Chinese owned company and a global player on the world stage and markets since its acquisition of IBM’s computer business in 2004 for almost $2B. Being Chinese owned, their risk is minimal. However, other sponsors such as Samsung, Coca-Cola, Visa, McDonalds and GE are global, multinational companies who generally don’t walk into alliances or partnerships without a clear plan of action. These companies are looking to expand their brand to the 1+ billion potential Chinese consumers. Sponsoring the Olympics is good business sense and, in its own way, a demonstration of their good social responsibility.  

Additionally, people who care about human rights issues are generally not consumers of the products that these corporations produce. I don’t think you’ll find many Amnesty International employees or volunteers enjoying a Coca-Cola in a McDonalds anytime soon, or, for that matter, anyone in a McDonalds anywhere having deep conversations regarding human rights issues over their Big Macs.

Sponsors assuage themselves by saying that they are moving forward to the spirit and ideals that the Olympics represent. Moreover, the one brand that could come out looking the worst could be the Olympics itself.

***Chase Wegmann is Director of Business Development & Client Strategy for an advertising, branding and marketing agency in New York City***