Now that the delayed Summer Games are officially complete, the global Olympic movement is shifting to an event that might be even more challenging: the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.
Those Olympics start in less than six months, but they remain shrouded in uncertainty for almost everyone involved. It’s unclear if foreign fans will be allowed to attend the Games, and uncertainty hangs over sponsors that pay billions of dollars to associate themselves with the Olympics, athletes and individual national teams.
Further complicating things, COVID-19 and questions of its origin continue to linger, as does the constant criticism surrounding China’s treatment of Muslims in its Xinjiang region, which governments across the world have labeled a genocide.
The Olympics boss isn’t the only one avoiding the topic. Representatives for the IOC and Team USA either didn’t respond to inquiries or declined to comment directly about the event. So too did many companies associated with the Games themselves, including U.S. media partner NBC and a number of sponsors. When asked about having fans, a representative for Beijing’s 2022 host committee said the group was “now in the process” of making decisions.
One thing is clear, at least here in the U.S.—many people in the Olympic movement are expecting the Games to be open only to Chinese fans. That decision, the thinking goes, could be formally announced as a COVID precaution, but it might also spare the Games from being the most boycotted (or avoided) Olympics of the past few decades.
More than half of Americans believe the U.S. should consider a boycott of the Beijing Olympics, according to a recent Sportico survey done in partnership with Harris Poll. Only 10% said they “strongly disagreed” with that idea.
Beijing originally appeared a longshot to host in 2022, considering it held the Summer Games in 2008 and doesn’t get snow, but it took center stage when bids in Stockholm and Oslo fell apart. Despite opposition from human rights groups, Beijing’s bid went to a final vote in 2015 opposite just one other option (Almaty, Kazakhstan), and won by a narrow 44-40 vote.
The 12-month delay in the Tokyo Games, which had its own controversy, has largely masked much of the uncertainty surrounding Beijing. The Summer Games are bigger, more popular and more expensive than their winter counterpart, making them a more important three weeks for many inside the Olympic movement. Usually there’s an 18-month window between the Summer and Winter games, but that shrunk dramatically because of Tokyo’s delay.
That hasn’t stopped some critics, including those in the U.S. government. Last month executives from five of the IOC’s top sponsors—Coca-Cola, Intel, Procter & Gamble, AirBNB and Visa—were questioned during a congressional hearing regarding the genocide in Xinjiang.
“We do not have a say in the selection of the host city, nor on whether an Olympics is postponed or relocated,” Paul Lalli, Coca-Cola’s global head of human rights, said at the hearing. “We do not make decisions on these host locations. We support and follow the athletes wherever they compete.”
For Team USA, the Beijing Games are the start of a new commercial era. All of the USOPC's roughly 20 major sponsors from the last few Olympics expire after the Tokyo games. That’s by design, to create a blank slate for a new joint venture between the USOPC and the Los Angeles 2028 organizing committee to sell bulk partnerships for the next four Olympics.
So far, the group has inked just a few deals that include the Beijing Games. Delta Airlines, Comcast and Salesforce have joined as foundational partners—sponsorship deals that can be worth around $200 million—plus smaller agreements with Deloitte, Nike and Ralph Lauren.
While that may seem like a step backwards, Beijing was always the least valuable of the next four Olympics for Team USA partners. And while there are companies skipping 2022 before buying in for 2024-2028, some of those already committed are locked in at higher price points. The joint venture originally set a goal of $2.5 billion in corporate deals, and that hasn’t changed, according to a person familiar with the thinking.
Companies also likely aren’t saving money by waiting until Paris, according to Ricardo Fort, founder of Sport by Fort Consulting. He added that Team USA sponsors are less directly tied to Beijing, and therefore less exposed to criticism about the government’s actions.
“For this group of companies, the earlier they start promoting the Games, the better for their businesses,” said Fort, who ran the global sponsorship teams at Visa and Coca-Cola. “So why wait?”
No U.S. company is more directly tied to the Olympics than Comcast, which owns NBCUniversal. Not only is Comcast a foundational partner of Team USA through the 2028 Games, but NBC is starting a new $7.75 billion TV deal that locks up the U.S. rights through 2032. That comes with the sports media industry in flux—the 2018 Winter Games were the least-watched of all time (despite NBC banking record ad revenue), and ratings in Tokyo also underwhelmed.
It’s unclear how much the controversy and confusion of the Beijing Games will affect the TV property. NBC is also working with the USOPC/LA2028 joint venture to sell some ad inventory in connection to bigger sponsorship deals, and has even committed to backstopping some of that $2.5 billion corporate goal, according to people familiar with the agreement.
“We are focused on concluding our coverage of the Tokyo Olympics,” an NBC Sports spokesman said late last week.
For all of these companies, and some athletes, the next few months will feature a lot of uncomfortable questions. Activists will grow more vocal about the human rights abuses, and American politicians will use the event to further rebuke China. After the July congressional hearing, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton called the sponsor testimony “pathetic and disgraceful.”
It will also be financially challenging for Olympic stakeholders in desperate need of a win. As IOC member Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., who heads the committee overseeing Beijing’s preparations, said at the start of the Tokyo Games: “We need very successful Games next year in Beijing. We really need that success for the sake of everybody.”