(Very Big) Business As Usual at the Beijing Olympics
The Chinese made a grand entrance on the Olympic world stage – intense, controlled, intimidating (if you find 2,008 men beating drums with seamless precision intimidating). Yet the awe inspiring opening ceremony was perfectly balanced with peaceful displays of song, calligraphy, and dance. As fairies began to fly through the Olympic rings, my biases surrounding the “genocide Olympics” were quickly swept under the 100-yard LCD rug.
China has dualism down to an art, and an Olympic sport for that matter. Dualism – the contrast between power and peace, light and dark, yin and yang – has long been recognized in eastern traditions, where the coexistence and balance of opposites is revered. These Olympic Games have embodied contradictory behavior but have been far from harmonious. The Chinese government’s fervent desire for a fresh image has only reinforced existing stereotypes, despite an effort to achieve nothing less than perfection. The problem with perfection is that it is balanced out by imperfections, and the overarching control of an authoritarian government has created more than a few: the arrest of human rights activists and journalists; the revocation of 2006 Olympic sprinter Joey Cheek’s visa to prevent him from attending the games (Cheek is the co-founder of Team Darfur, a coalition of Olympic athletes raising awareness about the Darfur genocide); the exploitation of the workers who built the stadium; allegations of underage gymnasts winning gold; and Lin Miaoke, the lip-syncing, adorable Chinese girl who replaced an ‘inferior’ looking 7 year-old in the Olympic ceremony limelight.
But it is not just China who is caught up in a sea of contradictions, unable to maintain a perfect façade. The sponsorship of the “genocide Olympics” has put many a Corporate Social Responsibility policy under examination, as companies have failed to live up to idealistic mission statements. Despite the seeming position of power corporations hold in the Beijing games (contributing a ton of money), the sponsors have dodged appeals to advocate for human rights in Sudan and Tibet. Money still trumps values, even in the age of “enlightened” corporations who espouse social and environmental ethics.
China’s role as a leading oil extractor and arms provider in Sudan continues to enable a mass genocide of the Darfuri people. Does this not warrant action? At least a strong word from sponsors (whose Olympic expenditures averaged $73 million a piece)? Not, apparently, if it falls beyond a company’s “sphere of responsibility.” In an effort to gain traction on the issue, Trillium Asset Management Corporation (“Trillium”) wrote to Olympic sponsors last September, reiterating the reputational risks associated with sponsorship and asking sponsors to leverage their access to the Chinese government to affect positive change. Few responded, and those that did said it was a problem for diplomats, not corporations.
That would be true in a perfect world where regional actors or the United Nations stepped in to solve problems with unlimited resources and trustworthy intentions. In reality, the ongoing massacres of hundreds of thousands should trouble the conscience of any and all actors with potential influence. The Olympics are an outstanding testament to the human potential to balance the head and the heart. Perhaps the next evolution in corporate potential will prove the coexistence of making money and doing good.