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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Editorial: The Olympic Brand

July 23, 2008

Kate Heartfield,
The Ottawa Citizen (Canada)
Published: Monday, July 21, 2008

Every time the Chinese government does something bad, the news
stories include a boilerplate paragraph about how this threatens to
taint the Olympic public relations campaign. But it never does.

The sponsor commercials -- you know, the ones with the tearjerking
music and the determined athletes -- keep airing. Beijing is, by all
accounts, spic and span and ready to party. The spectators are
getting ready to wear their officially approved clothing and cheer
their officially approved cheers. The Communist Party of China is
reportedly winning the war on algae, dust and smog. It will rain when
the government tells it to rain.

Meanwhile, a BBC investigative television program reported last week
that China recently sent military equipment to Sudan. Which makes me
wonder: What would the Chinese government have to do for its sponsors
to stop bragging about their participation in the Olympics -- or at
least, to stop bragging about it here in the West? What would be bad enough?

Companies such as Panasonic and Johnson & Johnson and Coca-Cola don't
scare as easily as Steven Spielberg does. (He pulled out in
February.) They don't seem to be nervous about being associated with
political prisoners and weeping monks and African refugees. There's
something about the Olympic brand that is powerful enough to overcome
all of that.

Or maybe it's just that the benefits outweigh the costs. Olympic
sponsors are being given dibs on advertising space, in an attempt to
prevent companies who aren't affiliated with the Games from
benefiting from the crowds. Maybe the Chinese government, which is
very good at controlling what people can say and where, is actually
the ideal host for the Olympics. You need someone to prevent ambush
marketing? Chinese president Hu Jintao, who had no trouble putting
down an uprising in Tibet in 1989, is your man.

There's a satirical accordion player, by the name of Geoff Berner,
who's written an unauthorized theme song for the Vancouver games in
2010. The premise is that some of the money being spent on the
Olympics might have been better spent on something else -- say,
preventing a mix-up that delayed reviews of more than 700 child
deaths in British Columbia. The song is humour at its blackest: the
chorus goes "The dead, dead children were worth it!" It's a catchy
song, and funny, if your sense of humour runs that way.

Of course, blaming one budget line for another is always a cheap and
flimsy argument. But the song gets under my skin, anyway. Berner
manages to capture some of the martial spirit and the at-all-costs
cheeriness that pervade Olympic preparations, in any country. It's
worth it -- whatever public-relations problem "it" happens to be.

And in China's case, "it" might actually include dead children. Last
week, hundreds of grieving parents protested against the poor school
construction they blame for the deaths of their children in the
earthquake this spring.

The Chinese authorities are, perhaps because of the Olympics-related
public-relations effort, or perhaps out of habit, trying to silence
dissent. Some parents say they're being offered money if they sign
contracts saying that the collapse was due to the earthquake.

At this year's Winnipeg Folk Festival, Geoff Berner played his
"Official Theme Song for the 2010 Vancouver/Whistler Olympic Games"
near a logo declaring Volkswagen to be a festival sponsor. "And they
agree with absolutely everything I say," he joked. He also played
"Maginot Line" (another catchy and cringe-inducing tune) and pointed
out the early association between Adolf Hitler and Volkswagen.
According to the Winnipeg Free Press, Volkswagen was not amused. This
being Canada, that's as far as it went. Free speech and all that.

Volkswagen is also a sponsor of the Beijing 2008 Olympics. Maybe some
day, some abrasive folksinger will remind an audience about that.
That's a risk Volkswagen seems willing to take. The potential costs
of association with the Beijing Olympics are, plainly, deemed to be
fewer than the marketing benefits. I bet the people who were laughing
and singing along with Berner will tune in for the hockey in 2010.

People love the Olympics. I'm not really sure why they do, but they
do. It could be something about the flags and anthems and sculpted
young bodies. Or maybe, to be more charitable, it's about the thrill
of competition, the celebration of achievement. Or maybe even -- and
given Darfur and Tibet this is a real stretch -- it's about internationalism.

I'll give the Olympic movement credit for one thing, at least: it's
proven to be a remarkably resilient brand.

Kate Heartfield is a member of the Citizen's editorial board. She
blogs at
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