Sizing up who came out on top—spectators, the Chinese, and sponsors—and why the IOC ends up on the losers' list
As the Beijing Olympic Games wrapped up on Aug. 24, 16 days after their fireworks-studded opening (BusinessWeek.com, 8/8/08), it is clear that on many counts they've been a huge success. China hosted a memorable Games and emerged as a dominant athletic powerhouse. The nation's athletes earned the Games' most gold medals, winning not only events where the country traditionally has excelled, such as gymnastics, diving, and table tennis, but also sports such as boxing and sailing that are new in its lineup. In the overall medal race, China won 100, putting it ahead of every nation except the U.S., which led with 110.
The 2008 Games didn't go so well for everyone, though. Here's my selective and personal list of the many winners and a few losers:
Whether they were the Chinese and overseas crowds who came to watch live or the billions of TV watchers around the world, the Games' spectators were unqualified winners. As they watched countless awe-inspiring athletic performances, they also witnessed China's dramatic rise to gold-medal powerhouse, unseating the U.S. At the same time, spectators were treated to the performances of 23-year-old American swimmer Michael Phelps, who won an unparalleled eight gold medals, and Jamaican Usain Bolt, who combined supreme, world-record-breaking sprinting with lighthearted antics. After breaking the 200-meter world record with a time of 19.30 seconds on Wednesday night—a little more than an hour before his 22nd birthday—Bolt celebrated by taking off his Puma Golden Theseus II running shoes before he danced around the perimeter of the National Stadium.
The rise of the Chinese team—winner of 51 gold medals, 15 more than second-place U.S.—certainly has provided a huge boost to Chinese pride, and likely will strengthen the popularity of athletics and lead to a healthier China. An Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide survey released on Aug. 22 shows that 90% of Chinese believe that athletics will become more important following the Olympics, with more than one-third saying they now will care more about sports. This is a big change for China, where traditionally sports have not been really popular.
Although Beijing said it was committed to a "smoke-free Olympics" and banned smoking in all venues, Beijing restaurants by and large still had their customary gray nicotine haze. Beijing, however, has plans to become a more smoke-free city over the next few years. Let us hope it pulls this off, since China today is the largest puffer of cigarettes in the world.
There were some very big winners among the Games' corporate sponsors. One of the biggest was Puma, which made a winning bet five years ago by picking a little-known athlete from a small island nation—Usain Bolt, who leaves Beijing as a three-time gold medal winner and world record holder in the 100- and 200-meter runs. "We picked him up very early when he was nobody—just a great talent—and really believed in his potential and stayed with him," says CEO Jochen Zeitz of Frankfurt-listed Puma. "We made him a hero in our global advertising campaign without knowing he would have a breakthrough at the Olympics." The company's association with Bolt is "something that you can't translate into money," adds Zeitz. "Those visuals and images go around the world, and there are very few that haven't seen them."
A few other executives are no doubt gloating over their early sponsorships with swimmer Phelps. They include Speedo, Omega, PowerBar, AT&T (T), PureSport, Hilton Hotels (HLT), Kellogg (K), and Visa (V). "I wish I were that smart—to have foreseen the remarkable achievements that Michael has accomplished," says Michael O'Hara Lynch, head of global sponsorship marketing at Visa, which helped sign up Phelps six years ago.
So what does Phelps get apart from sponsorship deals that some estimate could be worth up to $6 million to $10 million annually? Interviewed at a 360-year-old Qing Dynasty courtyard complex after the swimming competition, Phelps admits he still gets a thrill from simply being in a commercial. "When you grow up, you see commercials like in the Super Bowl and you think, 'Wow, that's pretty cool,'" he says. "And you see all these athletes in these commercials, and I wanted to be in a commercial…it's something you always dream of, and when you have the opportunity to do it, it's just really exciting."
Not all the sponsors had good luck. Nike (NKE) pumped big bucks into an advertising campaign with Chinese track star Liu Xiang. But then an injured Liu unexpectedly dropped out of his signature event (BusinessWeek.com, 8/18/08), the 110-meter hurdles.
Chinese government—qualified winner
For pulling off a safe and exciting Games unmarred by terrorist incident (BusinessWeek.com, 7/28/08), the Chinese government is a qualified winner. Beijing deserves kudos for constructing in record time an impressive collection of functional and beautiful Olympic venues, from the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube to the NBA-quality Wukesong basketball arena. And against all odds, a big win to Beijing for ensuring that the city's notoriously bad air was relatively clean for the duration of the Games.
The some 30,000 journalists who came from around the world to Beijing for the Games are likely to now have a less-biased view of China, one already reflected in reports they have sent to the world. The Ogilvy & Mather survey also reported that 25% of Chinese believe the most important outcome of the Games will be a better understanding of China in the West. That would go some way toward overcoming inaccurate foreign stereotypes of China still as a backward, tightly controlled police state. Vast changes have made the lives of most Chinese far better and freer than ever before.
Chinese openness—big loser
However, Beijing made a mockery of its promises to allow greater openness (BusinessWeek.com, 8/22/08) during the Games. Not only did the government lock up eight Americans (for Tibet independence protests) but at least 50 Beijing human-rights activists were either arrested, put under house arrest, or banished from the capital during the Games. Beijing also deserves condemnation for its false promises. After pledging unfettered access to the Internet, the government blocked sites on everything from Tibet to iTunes. And, after officials designated three municipal parks as special protest zones where they said dissenters would be free to express themselves, they admitted not a single protest had been allowed, although they received 77 applications from would-be protesters. Indeed, 15 Chinese—including two women in their late 70s upset about being evicted from their homes—were arrested simply for applying to protest. "We encourage the government of China to demonstrate respect for human rights, including freedom of expression and freedom of religion, of all people during the Olympic Games and beyond," the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said in a statement on Aug. 24. "We are disappointed that China has not used the occasion of the Olympics to demonstrate greater tolerance and openness."
While strolling through Ritan Park (also known as the Temple of the Sun), the designated protest park closest to my home, I certainly saw no dissidents expressing their views. Along with regular families and couples enjoying the pleasant grounds filled with traditional pagodas and Chinese arches, plainclothes police officers—notable for their brush cuts and imposing physiques—were omnipresent. Also giving away their identity were their not-so-subtle efforts to catch one's image on their camera phones. Helping the monitoring effort are Honeywell (HON) surveillance cameras (BusinessWeek, 8/7/08) mounted throughout the park.
Beijing environment—temporary winner
Beijing did have relatively clean air during the Games. This can be credited to a massive industrial shutdown (BusinessWeek, 7/3/08) across North China, strict traffic controls that took almost 2 million cars off the streets, and a huge cloud-seeding effort (BusinessWeek.com, 7/31/08) to bring rain and clear out haze. Problem is, there is little reason to believe that clean air will continue past the Olympic and Paralympic Games running Sept. 6-17. I for one am hoping that now that Beijingers know it is possible to have a cleaner city, they will start to more aggressively demand it. Maybe people will appreciate the better environment so much that they might accept long-term restrictions like a continuation of the odd-even license plate rule for driving.
A sour note: In its efforts to "beautify" downtown Beijing, the city authorities have made it even harder to ride a bike to work. Near my office, a host of blue-shirted Olympic volunteers appeared whose sole job seemed to consist in telling you that you could not lock your bike up anywhere. Heaven forbid that the new park and sports fields they had just constructed might have actual bicycles locked to the fences ringing them. That would look backward, I'm guessing was the reasoning. The same motivation apparently for the widespread practice of putting up huge billboards extolling the 2008 Olympic slogan, "One World, One Dream," but really aimed at hiding from view the older neighborhoods of the city. This continues a process which is making the business districts of Beijing ever more of no-go zone for bikes. Meanwhile, large underground parking lots make it ever easier for the owner of a combustible engine. So, why not drive your smog-blasting car to work instead!
For a country that prides itself on having one of the world's best cuisines, China's culinary tradition was a big loser. Beijing missed the chance to highlight some of its best foods, such as dumplings or pastries that could have easily been available on site. Instead, the food offered in the Olympic venues was bad enough to turn your stomach. Along with McDonald's (MCD) at the main venue, mobbed with daunting lines of hungry people, the food highlights were instant noodles, a single variety of pork "hefan" or lunchbox of Chinese fast food, strange small loafs of bread with unidentifiable "fruit" chunks, or greasy sausages. Inevitably, one left after a day or evening of great athletics with a stomach ache.
International Olympic Committee—loser
A special loser's medal goes to IOC President Jacques Rogge. Not only did his organization almost completely ignore Beijing's failure to honor promises towards new openness for internal dissenters, he showed how completely out of touch he was when he criticized Usain Bolt. According to Rogge, Bolt's exuberant and winning ways were "not the way we perceive a champion."
Wrong: With Bolt, we have not only the kind of awe-inspiring athlete that comes along once in a century but also one who happens to be a very charismatic character. Bolt charmed his fellow athletes as well as billions of spectators around the world. "I'm a performer," Bolt shot back. "I come out there and perform and let the public enjoy themselves. I won't change. I will always be myself." Let us hope he keeps doing exactly that. The combination of Bolt's tremendous athletic achievement plus his lighthearted ways were key in making a memorable Games—one that will go down in history as a great Olympics.
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