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5 weeks to go: Olympic Sponsors & Zika

With less than two months until the Olympic Games, health organizations, ethicists, politicians, and athletes are weighing the risks of Zika. In recent months, public examination of the virus has garnered much interest and press due to the amount of cases that have flared up in the host nation of Brazil.  The contentious virus has elicited a response from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) but not from ‘The Olympic Partners’—the ten top-tier companies that are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to foot the Olympic-sized bill.

Brazil has been under a microscope while being examined and assessed in terms of its preparedness for hosting half a million spectators and another 10,000 athletes. In its bid, Brazil pledged to host ‘green games for a blue planet’, specifically improving its infrastructure, standard of living, natural spaces, and public transportation.  However, it’s fallen short in its preparations for the Games; the shortcomings have been augmented by the public health and economic crises and the tumultuous politics surrounding suspended president, Dilma Rousseff.  Brazil has been forced to take a new position, from using the Olympics as an ‘outwardly symbolic crowning moment’ to one of defense.

The city of Rio de Janeiro has reported 32,000 cases of Zika – and counting.  With most state-allocated funds being channeled to Olympic-related construction and plans, the public health infrastructure is thirsting for aid.  While some argue that wintertime in Brazil will help mitigate the spread of the disease, others say the imminent descent of tourists will help the virus reach other corners of the earth.  It’s a tricky call, WHO and CDC claim the Games won’t greatly contribute to the spread of Zika.

Canadian professor Dr. Amir Attaran has been vocal about the danger in letting the Olympics continue, on time, and in Rio. Attaran wrote a letter to WHO outlining the risks of Zika and called for the Olympics to be either postponed or to change location. Interestingly, before writing to the WHO, Attaran reached out to sponsors however, they reportedly didn’t respond or deferred to national and international health organizations.

Zika is factoring into athletes’ decisions to even participate in the competition at all, which would affect hefty endorsement deals worth millions. Even athletes have weighed in and expressed various sentiments about the implications of Zika.  Gymnast Gabby Douglas confidently stated “I’m going. This is my shot. I don’t care about no stupid bugs.” Opposed to the more hesitant footballer Hope Solo and cyclist Tejay van Garderen, whereas golfer Rory McIlroy decided to withdraw participation all-together.  While athletes are publicly discussing Zika, sponsors are remaining mum on the topic even though brand ambassadors feature heavily sponsorship adverts. Juxtaposed to Douglas’s determined attitude in the face of Rio, British heptathlete and P&G brand ambassador Jessica Ennis-Hill has seriously weighed the detriments of Zika on her decision to participate.  Ennis-Hill features in the ‘Thank You, Mum’ campaign, because of the brand’s appreciation of family— the same reason why she has considered delaying her attendance in Rio.

None of the top ten sponsors of the Olympics have even issued statements on Zika or expressed an opinion of safety conditions on traveling to and competing in Rio.  It’s technically not in their remit.  They have deferred to the IOC, WHO, and CDC which are the authorities on public safety and control the status of the Games.  Brands are rightly concerned with who appears on their packaging and who endorses their products but are not the experts on the state of Zika.

The Olympic Partners are heavily invested in the Olympics; it would be in their best interest for the Games to continue purely in terms of their revenue, but at what cost? A spokesperson for the IOC stated “The IOC redistributes more than 90 percent of its income to the wider sporting movement,” meaning the sponsors pay athletes to train to compete at this high caliber event, only which to continue broadcasting their brands.

Critics have been quick to comment on the irony saying that “Coca-Cola and McDonald’s have decided [that the risk Zika poses] is okay.  That the possibility of brain damaged children is outweighed by their need to promote.”

Only ten companies are in the upper echelon of official sponsors which each shelled out a reported $200 million to be crowned ‘The Olympic Partners’. Of this group, Coca-Cola has the longest partnership with the Olympics, dating back to 1928. The longevity of its corporate sponsorship of the Games has inextricably united both organization’s values; Coke promotes its spirit of internationalism and optimism, both of which align with the IOC’s position. The enduring partnership means Coke and its brand ambassadors support the Olympics and its values.  Top-ranked American golfer, Jordan Spieth is expected to compete, despite Zika fears, because of his ambassadorship for Coke. The epidemic in Latin America has become a fiscal issue for Coke as the company earns about 10% of their total revenue from Latin America. Small lifestyle changes such as staying indoors and avoiding outdoor events to avoid mosquitos may pose more of a threat to Coke’s earnings in the region—a threat that could be ameliorated by the sales boost the Olympics will provide.  So, the dilemma remains: does Coke continue to promote the Games in Rio, helping boost its bottom line or does it err on the side of caution concerning the potential public health emergency?

Along with Coke, P&G is a top-tier sponsor, giving them intellectual property rights and ‘unmatched marketing opportunities’.  Since 2008, P&G’s successful ‘Thank You, Mum’ campaign highlights mothers around the world in support of their children.  In anticipation of Rio, P&G recently released its ‘Thank You, Mum- Strong’ advert.  While this clearly promotes Olympism, the Zika epidemic has seemingly added complexity to this given that the virus is most perilous to pregnant women.  Similar to Coke, P&G’s advice to employees and customers is in-line with WHO, the CDC, and Brazilian health official’s guidance which have advised women to delay pregnancy until 2018 and urged pregnant women to consider delaying travel to Zika-infested areas.

Overall, Zika’s looming presence in Brazil will not quell the Games come August or even extinguish many athlete’s dreams of winning gold. Whether or not the virus causes the IOC and its Worldwide Partners to take a hit the legacy of the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games will be one wrought with controversy.  Let the games begin.

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