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Some Olympic sponsors feel the heat

The Associated Press

In one corner are the 15 leading Olympic sponsors, many household names like Airbnb, Coca-Cola, Visa, Toyota, Samsung and General Electric. Together they pay at least $1 billion to the International Olympic Committee, and in the next four-year Olympic cycle the payments could reach $2 billion.

They are tied together by Beijing’s 2022 Winter Olympics, which opens in just under a year. Sponsors want the Olympic connection, but they risk damaging their brand because of reported human-rights abuses against Muslim Uyghurs, Tibetans and other minorities in China.

In the other corner is a small core of international lawyers and activists. They have branded these the “Genocide Games” and are pressuring sponsors, the IOC and world sports federations to investigate.

Thousands of Olympic athletes are caught in the middle. For most, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance for fame and a medal. But they’re on their own. Those who speak out may be banned by Olympic bodies, dropped by sponsors, and threatened by the Chinese state.

“It’s not fair that these huge institutions who can speak out are going to leave it to the individual athletes to do this,” Blair McDougall, campaign director for the British-based Stop Uyghur Genocide, told The Associated Press. “The governing bodies could speak out, the sponsors, the IOC.”

Instead, there is silence.

“Once again athletes are being used as pawns,” said Rob Koehler, director general of Global Athlete, an advocacy group for athletes.

Human-rights groups have initially targeted Airbnb and CEO Brian Chesky. The World Uyghur Congress and other advocates for Uyghurs and Tibetans have previously called for moving the games, or some type of boycott.

“Airbnb describe themselves as a company that talks of having an ethos,” McDougall said. “So far they have ignored us.”

To grab attention, campaigners have designed a mock-ad linking Airbnb to the internment camps and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Although sponsors account for about 18% of the IOC’s income, 73% comes from selling broadcast rights. The American network NBC accounts for about half of the broadcast income.

This will be Beijing’s second Olympics in 14 years, following the 2008 Summer Games that were supposed to improve human rights in China. These Olympics landed in China after several European bidders withdrew over costs and public opposition. The IOC was left with two choices: Beijing or Almaty, Kazakhstan. Beijing won in a narrow 44-40 vote.

“Our direct request of the sponsors is simple,” McDougall said. “Meet with the Uyghurs and people who have survived the network of camps so that you are not complicit in the use of the games in silencing the issue; in being used as a propaganda tool to distract from what’s happening.”

AP contacted the three Japan-based sponsors. Toyota’s reply was typical in regard to the internment of Uyghurs in northwestern China. Panasonic did not immediately respond, and Bridgestone sent a form letter from the IOC.

“As for the recent situation in Xinjiang, we are not in the position to comment on it,” Toyota said in a statement.

McDougall contacted the World Curling Federation, which initially responded by blocking him on social media. He said they have since lifted the block “but have gone silent.”

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