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Lessons Learned From The Cancelation Of The Tokyo Olympics. And An Important Question: Will The Coronavirus Change The Way Brand
CommPRO.biz -- Fay Shapiro CommPRO.biz -- Fay Shapiro
New York, NY
Tuesday, July 14, 2020


Arthur Solomon

Friday, July 24, was supposed to be the date for the Opening ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympic Games. Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, the Olympic Games, called "Tokyo 2020," were postponed for the first time in history. The Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games 'Tokyo 2020" will now be held on July 23, 2021, coronavirus permitting.

When announcing the new date for the Tokyo games, Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee said, "These Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 can be a light at the end of this tunnel," referring to the coronavirus Pandemic. Bad choice of words. "The light at the end of the tunnel' is infamous for being used to describe America's plight during the Vietnam War, and by President Trump on April 6, at a press conference about the coronavirus outbreak.

But if you think that calling an event held in 2021 "Tokyo 2020" is ludicrous, think again. Even more ridiculous is that throughout Olympic history the IOC has claimed that politics has no place in the Olympics and that the games foster world peace, proving that wearing blinders is not limited to thoroughbred race horses.

(Full Disclosure: I have been involved with various Olympics and Asian Games as an advisor to the highest-ranking games' officials as a political and  media trouble shooter; in others strategizing publicity programs for Fortune 500 brands. I also have been a speaker at an IOC media seminar. I think that the Olympic Games are the most important of all sports events because no other event brings together the, supposedly, best athletes from around the world. But to brand the Olympics a "peace maker," as the IOC does, is as absurd as its much often declaration that politics has no place in sports.)

Rule 50 of the Olympic charter prohibits demonstrations of "political religious or racial propaganda…in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas." Nevertheless, politics has always played a major role in the Olympics and with the IOC's blessing has been used by some of the most reprehensible totalitarian countries during our lifetime as a show case.

A few examples;

  • Despite Hitler's fascist regime, concentration camps and anti-Semitic laws, which dated back to 1933, the IOC let the 1936 Summer Olympics in Nazi Germany be played, ignoring protests from prominent U.S. politicians and a U.S. member of the IOC, who lost his position because of his opposition to the games in totalitarian Germany. In addition, Great Britain, France, Sweden, Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands also voiced criticism of holding the Olympics in Nazi Germany. The 1936 Olympics was the first time in modern Olympic history that U.S. and European countries called for a boycott of the games because of human rights abuses. The boycott movement narrowly failed, permitting Hitler to use the games for propaganda proposes.  However, American diplomats including William E. Dodd, the American ambassador to Berlin, and George Messersmith, head of the U.S. legation in Vienna, were publicly critical about the U.S. Olympic Committee's decision to participate in the games. 
  • The 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City again demonstrated the IOC's uncaring attitude to political actions of host governments. After a summer of protests, 10 days before the beginning of the games, the Mexican army opened fire on unarmed protesters, killing hundreds, according to eye witnesses. An additional 1345 were arrested, said the government. 
  • In 1980, the U.S. boycotted the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow to protest the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Sixty-five other nations also boycotted the games, but the IOC refused to move the games despite the use of military force by Russia. 
  • In 2008, as the opening ceremonies at the Beijing summer games was being held, Russia dispatched troops into disputed regions of Georgia in eastern Europe.
  • In addition to the 2008 Summer Olympics being held in Beijing, China was also awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics, making the totalitarian country's capital the first city to host both a Summer and Winter Olympics.
  • In 2014, Russia was allowed to host the Winter Olympics, even though it passed anti-homosexual laws prior to the games. During the games, Russia invaded Ukraine. 

The IOC's reaction to China's show of military force since they were awarded the 2022 games has been as silent as a drop of rain falling into a stormy ocean. But surely Bach, the president of the IOC, would speak out about Putin's use of military force during an Olympics. And he did. Here's what Bach said. He praised Putin's "great commitment to the games," and personally thanked Putin for his contribution to the "extraordinary success of these (2014) Winter Games," despite it being derided around the world for its human rights violations.

But the IOC and its affiliated sports organizations are not the only entities to remain quiet about the games being used as a showcase for totalitarian countries.

Shamefully, American brands helped promote those dictatorship-run countries by its sponsorship of the games, proving that money talks in any language and in any form of government.

Thankfully the Tokyo Olympics was awarded to a democratic country. But the year's postponement gives game sponsors an opportunity to think whether investing huge chucks of money into mega-sporting events pays off. 

Normally after every Olympics, brands question whether the enormous sponsorship costs were worth the price. Questions would be asked, "Was the ROI worth it?' Marketing experts would write columns about how more targeted advertising on non mega events produce better results. And the sponsors will always say in public statements, "It was worth the cost," even when privately they say it wasn't.

The cancellation of "Tokyo 2020" provides time for knee-jerk sports sponsors to question the costs of being "a proud sponsor" of an Olympics and other mega sporting events.

The coronavirus Pandemic provides sports marketers an opportunity to consider if advertising on none mega- sporting events are more productive than counting eyeballs.

There were many important new marketing lessons brand managers might have learned had the Tokyo Olympics been played as scheduled. But, maybe, the cancellation of the Olympics provided the following realities for sponsors to ponder:

  • Sponsors can survive without spending millions of dollars on mega sports events. But sports cannot survive without sponsors.
  • Perhaps its time to test spending sports sponsorship money elsewhere and see if doing so affects sales.
  • Client entertainment? There certainly are other ways to entertain a client.
  • We know that the cancelation of sports events are most important to people whose livelihood depends on them, but how do consumers whose livelihood does not depend on sports businesses feel about the cancellations? And, 
  • The world did not stop because of the cancellation of the Olympics and other sporting events.

(On a personal basis, everyone I know was looking forward to the start of the baseball, basketball and football seasons. Not so much the hockey season or "Tokyo 2020." But since the coronvirus made playing impossible, I've had back and forth's with some people saying things like, "Can you believe it. It's July 4 and the Mets are still undefeated," or "You can't blame the Knicks for not making the playoffs this year." That might be a problem for the leagues and its sponsors as people realize that there are many things more important to them than who wins the World Series or Super Bowl.)

Once the coronavirus epidemic subsides it probably will not change the IOC's and other sports entitles' future actions. But it might convince some people that despite the hype, on the "Importance Chart," to many people sports are not that important. 

Thus far the National Football League is the only major sports business that has not curtailed its regular 2020 schedule, although some players have spoken out questioning the necessity of pre-season exhibition games and at this writing negotiations between the players and the league are on-going. Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League, which said that all its games will be played in Canada because of the virus outbreak in the U.S., have shortened their seasons. Some pro baseball and basketball players have opted to stay at home instead of playing during the epidemic. Some hockey players have voiced concern about playing. College football seasons have drastically been changed because of the virus. 

What's undeniable is that Americans were able to survive the coronavirus without sports of any kind. Many couldn't without medical attention and machines that help them breathe.

Karl Marx, not a sports fan to my knowledge, said, "… Religion is the opium of the people." Many sports reporters claim that sports helped New York City recover after 9/11. Bach, president of the IOC, said, talking about the resumption of the games in 2021, even thought it will still be called "Tokyo 2020", "…These Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 can be a light at the end of the tunnel."

In my opinion they're all wrong. Sports are nothing more than a temporary diversion from the travails of everyday life, the same as going to the movies, theater or a concert. As such it plays an important part of life, but not that important. 

One of the headlines of this column posed an important question: Will The Coronavirus Change The Way People Think About Sports? 

Disregard all the hype from the sports moguls and people who depend on the business of sports for their livelihood. There is only one correct answer to the question: Time will tell. But we do know that the coronavirus Pandemic hasn't resulted in demonstrations demanding "liberate our sports teams." In fact, there has been very little said about the absence of sports. The subject is on the back burners of news coverage, very rarely mentioned, as truly important subjects like the spread of the coronavirus, and racial protest rallies dominate the news coverage.

What the coronavirus Pandemic of 2020 shows is that people can survive without sports, because in the final analysis it's just another entertainment vehicle. It always has been and rational people, who do not depend on sports for a living, should view it as such. Because the history of sports shows that the moguls that run it only care about the bottom line, not about you. 

Another question: Will the sponsors of mega-sports events, many of whom have publicly supported the racial protest movements, (which skeptics might say was merely a marketing ploy) agree with protesters who believe that the money a city spends on hosting an Olympics can be better used to finance projects that help all of its citizens. My advice to you is that regardless of the odds you are given, don't spend your last dollar betting that the answer will be "yes." If you do, you might find yourself without lunch money.

History, and reality, proves that it is not the great athletic performances that really matters to sponsors, host cities, TV networks and the IOC. It is the bottom line. (And the same is true with owners and sponsors of all professional sports teams.) Whether it's called "Tokyo 2020" or "Tokyo 2021," for sponsors, the host city, TV networks and the IOC the winner and losers will not be decided on the athletic fields, but by the money in the bank. 

A great sportswriter, Grantland Rice, once wrote, "It's not that you won or lost, it's how you played the game." For the sports business, making money is more important than how the games are played.  If you don't believe me, wait until another franchise packs its propaganda and moves to a more lucrative city. Or continues to raise tickets prices to the point where going to a game is prohibitive for many fanatics, as it already is for many. 

Chances are you won't have to wait too long for one of the above scenarios to occur. Because in sports, history always repeats. And money always talks. The most recent example being the NFL's Washington Redskins decision to change its name after sponsors threatened to call it quits, if they didn't.

The cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics because of the coronavirus pandemic provides a valuable lesson for PR people when planning programs. As Winston Churchill said, " "It is a mistake to try to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time." When crafting a publicity program it should contain elements that are likely to achieve a fast hit. Everything else in the program is secondary

The Unspoken PR Tenet: Bad News Is Good News for Our Business By Arthur Solomon

About the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com or artsolomon4pr@optimum.net.

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