On July 13 in Moscow, the International Olympic Committee will make one of the most momentous decisions in its 107-year history: It will decide whether to award the 2008 Summer Games to Beijing. China has mounted such an intense drive to be host city that the other principal contenders--Paris and Toronto--often get scant attention. Now Corporate America, Washington, even some human-rights activists seem to be signaling that Beijing should be allowed the defining moment it has long sought.
For Big Business, "it's a no-brainer: China is a much bigger, faster-growing market than France or Canada," says an executive at one major sponsor. Top sponsor Coca-Cola Co. (KO), for example, has made a major investment in China that could get a boost from the Games. "Sponsors would definitely benefit by having the Olympics in China," says Lisa Delpy-Neirotti, professor of sports management at George Washington University in Washington. "In Japan, Fuji really had a lock on the film category, but because Kodak was an Olympic sponsor [at Nagano], they were able to get into the Japanese market."
PROPAGANDA. While the Olympics has tried to reduce its dependence on the U.S., 7 of its 10 chief sponsors, giving an average of about $60 million over four years, are still American. Bowing to this reality, the Bush Administration has ignored congressional voices opposed to a Chinese victory--many of them Republican--and declared neutrality on the issue of whether Beijing should get the Games.
Still, reservations about China go beyond the awarding of a prestigious, multicultural event to a nation with such an abysmal record on human rights. Some critics fear Beijing will turn the Games into a propaganda triumph reminiscent of the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Berlin.
The counterview is that the Olympics will help democratize China, as the 1988 Games did for South Korea. "The Olympics would be a significant catalyst for change--first, by upgrading the infrastructure...and second, by changing the mentality to become more outward-looking," predicts Fred Hu, a Goldman Sachs & Co. managing director in Asia. And even some human-rights activists can support Beijing's bid if journalists are allowed reasonable access and the regime promises to avoid crackdowns on dissidents before and during the Olympics. "Beijing wants the Games so badly that I think if the IOC insisted on these measures, China would at least try to meet them halfway," says Mike Jendrzejczyk of Human Rights Watch.
Instead of opening, though, a victorious China could ignore world opinion and continue its religious persecutions and crackdowns on dissidents, confident that the Games would probably not be taken away. Moscow, for example, was not denied the 1980 Olympics even though the Soviets invaded Afghanistan after being awarded the Games. Beijing has made the 2008 Olympics such a litmus test of its acceptance into the family of nations, however, that to deny it the Games would be an insult of global proportions. And for Corporate America, what's the upside to an angry China? By William Echikson in Brussels, with Alysha Webb in Shanghai and Diwata Fonte in Washington