For Olympic sponsors, silence is hardly golden

Olympic organizers have historically claimed that the Games transcend politics. But from Jesse Owens' defiant moment in Berlin in 1936, to US athletes' use of the Black Panther salute at the 1968 Games in Mexico City, to the US hockey team's gold medal in Lake Placid, NY, in 1980, the Olympics have long been imbued with political resonance.

Olympic organizers have historically claimed that the Games transcend politics. But from Jesse Owens' defiant moment in Berlin in 1936, to US athletes' use of the Black Panther salute at the 1968 Games in Mexico City, to the US hockey team's gold medal in Lake Placid, NY, in 1980, the Olympics have long been imbued with political resonance.

Thus, that the world expects this summer's Beijing Games to receive its own dose of politics is not unique. To Western eyes, China has a lot of controversial positions, but the controversy has lately been centralized to China's relationship with the Sudanese government.

Kobe Bryant - who will play on the US basketball team in Beijing - filmed a PSA for AidStillRequired.org, where he spoke out against the genocide in Darfur. Previously, Steven Spielberg decided, based on Chinese business ventures in Sudan, not to serve as artistic advisor to the Games' opening and closing ceremonies.

Privately, some PR representatives of major brands with Olympic sponsorships have told PRWeek that they expect mass demonstrations and controversy in Beijing. But for companies to be prepared for - and anticipate - crisis is not enough, if they let negative sentiment for the sponsors and the Games go unanswered.

Thanks to advocacy groups like the Save Darfur Coalition, the US public is more aware of China's relationship with Sudan. Even if most citizens don't grasp the geopolitical elements, they can't avoid messages from stars, either directly (Spielberg) or indirectly (Bryant).

Of course, brands have too much invested in the Games to withdraw as sponsors, as some people want. And outward criticism of Chinese policies would not only alienate the host government, but also the Chinese people.

The negative creep of the Beijing Games still grows in the US - via celebrity awareness. Sponsors must know the most alarming sign of public protest may be silence.

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