'Free' speech at Beijing Olympics decidedly costly

When the Beijing Olympics begin Aug. 8, the ability to speak publicly will depend on what you say — or what you pay.

The Olympics Games have always been one of the largest possible megaphones for espousing a cause — either political or commercial. Terrorists have used it. Athletes have used it. Host nations have used it. And certainly, sellers of goods and services have used it. Be it boycott, black power or big business, the Olympics offers maximum volume for any message.

This year the early gold medal of the Politicize-the-Games Sweepstakes has gone to the Free Tibet sloganeers, although their gamesmanship was hardly challenged. The Olympic torch relay made an exceptionally easy — and highly visible through media — target for protesters. Much of the pre-Games press has focused on how well or poorly host nation China will bury pro-Tibet protests or encourage pro-China, home-team support.

But there’s far more at issue regarding speech in Beijing than proclamations for or against Tibet.

If you’re an Olympic athlete, you do not have freedom of speech at the Games, declarations by the International Olympic Committee notwithstanding. You’re bound by a mandate in the Olympic Charter. Rule 51(3) states, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” [emphasis added]

You need not be an Olympic athlete — or even leave the United States — to be affected by Rule 51(3). Fans at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in Eugene, Ore., were greeted by these words: “Spectators may not wear or bring political, religious, race-related, advertising or promotional items to the venue.”

The Olympic committee of Britain tried even more draconian measures to limit athletes’ speech. In February, public outrage forced the Brits to back down on requiring its Olympic athletes to sign a 32-page contract containing this clause: “[Athletes] are not to comment on any politically sensitive issues.”

British Olympic Association chief executive Simon Clegg said: “There are all sorts of organisations who would like athletes to use the Olympic Games as a vehicle to publicise their causes. As a team we are ambassadors of the country and we have to conform to an appropriate code of conduct.”

Other national committees did not follow Britain’s example. Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates said, “What we will be saying to the athletes is that it’s best to concentrate on your competitions. But they’re entitled to have their opinions and express them. They’re free to speak.” And from Finland’s Jouko Purontakanen, secretary general of the Finnish Olympic Committee: “The freedom of expression is a basic right that cannot be limited.”

American athletes will be cautioned to limit their protests to “appropriate’ settings, according to U.S. Olympic spokesman Darryl Seibel. “We will not prohibit free speech,” Seibel said, “but in speaking with our athletes, most seem to feel it would be highly inappropriate to use the Games as a forum to make a political statement.”

But don’t hang a Tibetan flag in your room in the Olympic Village, because the IOC would consider that a breach of Rule 51(3). Says IOC chief Jacques Rogge: “Freedom of expression is absolutely a human right but there are small limitations. We are a movement of 205 nations, many of whom are in conflict, and the Games are not the place to take political or religious stances.” [emphasis added]

Really? At the 2000 Sydney Games, officials allowed 400-meter winner Cathy Freeman to use the Aboriginal flag for a victory lap. Other non-official “political or religious stances” include Irish athletes boycotting the 1908 London Games, an Italian giving a fascist salute at the 1932 Los Angeles Games, and an Iranian judo competitor pulled from the 2004 Games because he had drawn an Israeli competitor, and, of course, the 62-nation boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games.

Given all that, why not grab a Tibetan flag for a victory lap after winning an event? Nope. That will get an athlete a ticket home, says Rule 51(3).

If athletes leave the Olympic venture, they become what you and I would be — foreign nationals subject to Chinese law regarding protests. Chinese officials said this week they plan “to designate space in three public parks as protest zones for people to vent their grievances.” (Gee. That sounds like the free-speech zones Democrats plan to provide to protesters at their national convention in Denver.)

How convenient. Those with grievances need only tell the Ministry of Public Security — well in advance — the names of those who will participate, what their beef is, and how many will be expressing those grievances … to obtain a permit. Chinese officials will even provide food and drink. But the “protest zones” will be so far from any Olympic venue that the intended audience of any officially permitted protest will be unaware of it. No audience, no media, no impact.

The International Olympic Committee says it believes in free speech … mostly. Says IOC President Jacques Rogge: “For us, freedom of expression is something that is absolute. It’s a human right. Athletes have it. There are small restrictions in not making propaganda or demonstrations in Olympic venues, like on the podium, for obvious reasons.” [emphasis added] Those reasons were not specified.

Rogge does not believe the 205 member nations should hash out their respective religious, racial or ethnic disagreements on the Olympic playing field — and the IOC has codified that belief in Rule 51(3).

But commercial speech? That’s a different matter. The IOC has Rule 51(2): “No form of advertising or other publicity shall be allowed in and above the stadia, venues and other competition areas which are considered as part of the Olympic sites.” This seems a bit of a fantasy.

What do Coca-Cola, Atos Origin, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Kodak, Lenovo, Manulife, Mcdonald’s, Omega, Panasonic, Samsung and Visa have in common? For openers, they want a piece of the world’s second-largest advertising market:

The promise of selling a billion bottles of Coke to China’s 1.3 billion people is no longer a pipe dream; last year, 24 billion bottles of Coca-Cola were sold in China. KFC, a unit of Yum Brands, has more than 2,000 stores here. McDonald’s and Starbucks are ubiquitous. And Nokia, the cellphone maker, sold about 70 million phones to Chinese consumers in 2007, racking up sales of $10 billion.

They’re “Worldwide Olympic Partners” who will be advertising in China. And they couldn’t care less about Rule 51(2). That’s because the attendees at the Olympics are not the intended audience. Frankly, nor are viewers of American television, the principal audience of almost all past Olympic advertising. Even the most visible current effort on American television, Visa’s “Go World” feel-good-about-Visa, about-the-Olympics and about-the-human-spirit campaign, is relatively modest.

Advertising outside China won’t touch on controversy or nationalistic themes:

McDonald’s has a TV spot airing called “The More We Get Together” that juxtaposes a nursery-song rhyme against competitive moments with athletes of varied races and colors, none wearing national symbols. “The more we get together the happier we’ll be,” the ad says.

But inside China? that’s a different story.

According to a BusinessWeek headline, sponsors plan in-China-only ad campaigns with a single intent: “Olympic Sponsors Cheer the Home Team: Western businesses are harnessing Olympic fervor in China and playing up national pride in their advertising campaigns.” [emphasis added]

It doesn’t take much of an intellect to figure out why multinational corporations plan bland, non-offensive, outside-China campaigns but boost nationalistic pride in campaigns inside China. With affluence increasing in China both in economic and geographical terms, corporations want a piece of a market with 1.3 billion Chinese citizens — especially its 250 million increasingly middle-class consumer-citizens.

That’s precisely what Olympic sponsors are doing within China — using the desire of the Chinese to obtain a positive image of their country, battered by recent bad press, to maintain and extend brand recognition to those billion-plus potential Chinese consumers, leading, presumably, to increased corporate revenue.

Take McDonald’s. Says BusinessWeek about its campaign:

But within China, where pride in hosting the games is running high and feelings are sensitive because of the Tibetan protests and the Sichuan earthquake, this universalism gives way to something else. For its Chinese marketing, McDonald’s dispenses with appeals to unity and friendship and instead focuses on cheering for the home team. Its slogan in Chinese is “wo jiu xihuan zhongguo ying.” The translation: “I’m loving it when China wins.” [emphasis added]

Coca-Cola, for which China is its fourth-largest market and growing, “paid $70 million to $75 million to be a four-year Olympic partner and $5 million to $15 million to be one of three sponsors of the torch run.” It’s counting on the warm fuzzies of the Olympics to reap reward on that investment.

Coke’s in-China campaign is called “Year of the Shuang,” a Chinese word the company translates as a “physical and emotional state of refreshment.” Coke’s on-site operation in Beijing is massive:

Besides blanket outdoor advertising, Coke will run three centers. The 40,000-square-foot Shuang Experience Center on the Olympic Green will include a gallery about Coke’s history, a theater showing a film about Coke’s sponsorship of the Olympic torch relay, a section on Coke’s charitable activities and a “perfect serve” bar where visitors will receive “perfectly chilled bottles of Coke” … Coke expects to distribute about 26 million beverages sold through concession stands or provided free to Olympic athletes and officials. It will host 10,000 VIP guests, about 8,000 to 9,000 from China.

Says Kevin Tressler, Coca-Cola’s director of worldwide sports and entertainment marketing, “There’s a warm feeling that comes to people when they think about the Olympics. The Olympics is a very powerful brand.”

Adidas offers TV and billboards with this theme: “Together in 2008, Impossible Is Nothing.” The ads show images of individual athletes, in color, supported by a black-and-white, almost indistinguishable mass of Chinese citizens in support.

Even the corporations that are not official Olympic sponsors are piling on. From Pepsi, a viral online “Love China” campaign. Pepsi’s even changing color: It “painted its familiar blue cans red for a limited edition ‘Go Red for China’ promotion.”

The IOC loves commercial speech. It pays well. A major corporate sponsorship for the Beijing Games costs an average of $40 million to $50 million. Add in the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, and it’s even higher. Says Forbes: “Estimates have computer maker Lenovo paying $80 million to $100 million to be the official sponsor of the games. Eleven global sponsors — including Coca-Cola and McDonald’s —spent a combined $850 million to sponsor the Turin and Beijing Olympics.”

Now, toss in the cost of the actual advertising campaign and media buys. When it comes to free speech, commercial speech is decidedly expensive. So the definition of free speech for an official Olympic sponsor is simple: no competing speech.

Remember, the Olympics as a platform for commercial speech always draws a crowd, and not all paid the $50 mill to get in. Those who paid the big dollars to be sponsors want protection from ambush marketers, those corporations that seek to bathe themselves in the aura of the Games without paying for that privilege.

The IOC must be tickled pink (or red, in this Games’ case). It doesn’t have to play the heavy. Chinese officials have already made it impossible for individuals or groups to display any effective free speech. They have also made non-official, non-sponsor Olympic commercial speech illegal. Beijing officials will clamp down on violations of Olympics-related patents, trademarks and copyrights during the Games. Says Chen Feng, deputy director of the marketing department of the Beijing Olympics Organizing Committee:

From July 11, all prominent advertising space in Beijing, including at the airport and on subway lines, will be controlled, giving official sponsors priority. Companies will be monitored for illegal advertising and serious action will be taken against violators.

They’ll even check spectators’ clothing. If one guy’s wearing a non-sponsor company’s T-shirt, that’s fine, perhaps. But if a group of people all have the same shirt, watch out. “If a group of spectators wear the same clothes, then it is suspicious,” Chen said. “We will then talk with them and try to stop it.”

• • • •

There’s far more to the issue of free speech at the Games. This post only frames what’s possible (or not) for athletes, spectators and corporations and why those limitations exist. Should athletes have the right to political protest on the field of play? The IOC says no. Other Olympic committees, in correct-speak, say “yes” but add protests would be “inappropriate” or “distracting” to athletes’ competitive efforts.

Should we abandon the illusion that Olympic athletes are uncompensated amateurs? Do athletes have the right to commercial speech on the field — especially if they’re used to that? An interesting question. Given that virtually every athletically competitive college or university in the United States probably has equipment contracts or sponsorships, corporations would vote “yes” (no surprise). Given that professional athletes, also used to commercial sponsorships, are competing in the Beijing Games, that answer, too, would be “yes” from Coke and its commercial kin. (Thank God NASCAR racing isn’t an Olympic event.)

The Olympic movement has so much inherent conflict of interest regarding freedom of speech. Who gets it? Why? The IOC certainly favors commercial speech. But the speech it abhors the most is embarrassing-to-the-Games speech. That’s precisely what Tommie Smith and John Carlos did in Mexico in 1968, in the IOC’s mind. Hence the IOC’s desire to avoid the adverse press sure to follow political speech by athletes on the field of play.

Meanwhile, don’t show up in Beijing wearing a “Free Tibet” T-shirt. But perhaps a modest swoosh will get by.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post said “the English soccer team offer[ed] a Nazi salute at the 1938 Berlin Games.” The Games were played in 1936; the English soccer team traveled to Berlin’s Olympic Stadium on May 14, 1938, to play Germany. The Nazi salute was ordered by England’s Foreign Office under the policy of appeasement toward the Nazis pursued by Neville Chamberlain’s government. England won, 6-3.

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  2. This whole thing about protest and free speech at the Olympic Games has been a big bugaboo since 1968. Why has China become the first country to attract such hostility from the Western press? I don’t think even Nazi Germany or the U.S. has. Would this hostility have been the same if the U.S. had hosted the Games this year, considering their presence in Iraq and Afghanistan? I wonder.