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Ron Judd's Olympics Insider

Ron Judd, an Olympics junkie and Seattle Times columnist who has covered Olympic sports since 1997, will use this space to serve up news and opinion on the Summer and Winter Games -- also inviting you to chime in on Planet Earth's biggest get-together.

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April 24, 2008 5:00 PM

Is there a nest of "moral cowards" at Microsoft?

Posted by Ron Judd

OK, now it's getting serious.

An activist group, Dream for Darfur, is officially targeting Olympic sponsors, including Microsoft, for snuggling up to China, saying they've failed to do their part to end fighting in Sudan.

Dream for Darfur names 16 companies, including General Electric, Coca-Cola and Microsoft, accusing all of "moral cowardice" for pumping money into the Beijing 2008 Games with little regard for China's role in the ongoing conflict in Darfur. China is a major investor in Sudan, and buys most of Sudan's exported oil. The country is oft-criticized for failing to use its economic influence to curtail bloodshed in western Darfur, where the United Nations estimates that more than 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced.

Dream for Darfur is the group headed by actress Mia Farrow, giving it media clout it otherwise likely wouldn't possess. It released a 100-page study that Farrow told the Associated Press is a "report card grading the companies' responsibility on humanity and on the ability to think outside the box on profitability, and to open minds to social responsibility."

The report, which examined all corporate sponsors of the International Olympic Committee and the Beijing Games themselves, says Eastman Kodak, Adidas and McDonalds have take adequate action, and won't be targeted. Kodak and Adidas, for example, earned "B's" on the report card because they wrote to the UN about Darfur.

Microsoft earned a "D-minus," placing it in a group with Johnson & Johnson, Lenovo Corp., Samsung and Visa -- companies that responded to group queries, but have failed to take what the group considers adequate action. Earning big, fat "F's" were corporate sponsors that failed to even respond to the group, including Staples, Anheuser-Busch, mining company BHP Billiton Ltd., Volkswagen and UPS.

All the companies, Dream for Darfur alleges, are "silently complicit in the Darfur genocide, thereby tarnishing the 2008 Beijing Olympics and their own sponsorships by their association with China's role in the ultimate crime against humanity." (A footnote to that statement says the group considers sponsors to be "secondarily complicit.")

The group vowed to protest corporate headquarters and urge a television boycott of the Games in August. Demonstrations are planned at "F" earning companies: Coca-Cola HQ in Atlanta and in New York on Sunday, at Staples, Inc. in Boston on Sunday, the AP reports.

No word on protests of Microsoft. In the group's report, it concedes that two Microsoft executives met personally with Farrow in Redmond to address the issue. Subsequently, Microsoft, in a letter, detailed its many contributions to humanitarian relief efforts through the UN and other means, and ensured the group that the company's top leadership, including its board of directors, had carefully considered Microsoft's role in the Olympics.

In a separate, public statement issued last month, in the wake of the query, Microsoft noted that it sees the Olympics as a means to "transform global relationships, create unity and accelerate positive change in the world," and respects the IOC's decision to choose China as a host. The company notes that its role as a sponsor is as a software supplier and distributor of licensed Olympics coverage through its partnership with NBC. And then it states:

"Like people all around the world, we are shocked and horrified by the violence and human rights violations in Darfur. We commend Dream for Darfur and other organizations for their leadership in casting a spotlight on this atrocity and the need for immediate international resolution. Governments and international organizations -- the United Nations chief among them -- as well as humanitarian relief organizations -- will need to continue to work together locally and globally to address the problems in Sudan. Microsoft will continue to support these organizations in their mission through technology assistance and other resources."

That statement was branded "corporate doublespeak" in the report by Farrow's group -- apparently because it did not mention the Chinese role in Sudan specifically -- even though Microsoft was the only corporation to issue a public statement in response to questions about Darfur.

"While we appreciate the effort," Farrow's group says, "the resulting verbiage is a case study in playing it safe."

The group seemed careful to distinguish humanitarian work by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation -- which, it notes, contributed $5.3 million to refugee aid in Darfur and Chad -- from the company's separate corporate sponsorships.

"We continue to hope that Microsoft, because of its significant dealings with China and also because of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's interest in humanitarian issues, may yet emerge in a leadership role on this issue," the report states. "To date, however, Microsoft has done little."

Our take: Corporate boycott attempts may prove an effective tool for groups like Farrow's, whose cause is a just one. Good for her. Bring out the picket signs. But -- at the risk of sounding like a homer here -- let's get real. Does it not seem disingenuous to apply the "complicit" brand to a company like Microsoft, which not only sounds like it's on this groups side, but has been a relative model global citizen compared to other corporations on this group's hit list?

That's especially true when one considers the unparalleled work of the Gates Foundation, which is doing more, day to day, on a down-in-the-dirt level, to aid the world's neediest citizens than a thousand Mia Farrows could do in a lifetime.

Her group, to its credit, posts full responses from all the companies, including Microsoft, in its report. But little of that response -- and none from the Redmond company -- made it into wire-story summaries we've seen.

It illustrates the danger -- and potential irresponsibility -- of simplistic, "letter-grade" branding of corporations for their role in affairs as complex as these. Taking a public-relations sledgehammer to a major corporation that has the stones to publicly endorse your mission might turn the heads of those who fail to read the fine print. But it's not a very good way to effect change.

Comments | Category: Beijing 2008 Games , Olympic politics , Olympic sponsors |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

April 23, 2008 5:30 PM

Straight dope from your Unofficial 2010 Olympic paper

Posted by Ron Judd

Vancouver organizers, on a sponsorship binge this week (see beer item, below), dropped word of another one today: Canwest Publishing, owner of, well, a lot of the newspapers in western Canada, has signed on as the "Official Regional Newspaper Publisher" for the 2010 Games.

What does that mean? It means the newspaper conglomerate, which owns not only the local Victoria Times-Colonist, Vancouver Sun and The Province, but also The Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Windsor Star, Regina Leader-Post, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal, will get "exclusive rights in the regional newspaper publisher/product service category" for the Games of 2010, and the Canadian Olympic team through 2012, says a Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) release. The deal involves "value-in-kind allocation of print and online advertising," in Canwest papers.

Translation: The papers will presumably give up space to promote the Games, as well as produce and distribute in papers info guides dealing with ticket sales, transportation, accompanying arts and culture festivals, etc. -- and Canwest papers will be the only ones carrying this stuff.

In return for its space and delivery -- and perhaps an additional sponsor fee, not specified -- Canwest papers also will be able to call themselves official Games products, letting them in on the giant promotional gravy train that rolls into town before, during and after every Olympics.

Both sides of the deal clearly are aware of the potential blowback from people wary of media conglomerates being in bed financially with a major news generator like an Olympic Games bureaucracy. How do we know? Because they're tripping over themselves to pooh-pooh it from the get-go.

"The sponsorship is a marketing and advertising partnership and is independent of Canwest's editorial coverage of the 2010 Winter Games," VANOC states.

OK. But the fact is, we have personally seen other media organizations with contractual relationships with the International Olympic Committee, and individual nations' sports groups, given favorable treatment when it comes to event access at past Olympics. Not officially, of course. Just wink-wink, yeah, you're getting the best camera angle at figure skating because you're On Our Team.

Not that we suspect Canwest is trying to buy influence here. The company owns capable newspapers that will be the media home team for the Vancouver Games. They don't need an extra advantage. But this is bigger than a sports-page matter. The Games are a massive, multi-billion-dollar, public-policy news story, as well.

Which is why, in a city like Vancouver, where small-but-ardent anti-Olympic and anti-corporate sentiments run concurrent and strong, you wonder about perceptions of conflict of interest.

It's a version of a broader problem journalists have always faced -- and will face increasingly -- as newspapers relax the walls between advertising and news in an effort to survive. A perception of collusion can be just as damaging as the real thing; fairness resides in the mind of the beholder.

And the Olympics, remember, are financed in no small part by a public which, in this case, gets most of its news from watchdogs all attached to a single chain. If some misstep by VANOC went uncovered by Canwest papers, would anyone really believe no favors were granted by the newspaper "partners?"

This explains the careful wording of VANOC CEO John Furlong's news-release statement: "Canwest will continue with its excellence in objective editorial coverage of the Games. We are also very pleased to have their team on board to play a separate role in delivering important information about the Games to communities throughout our country."

He didn't choose the words "objective" and "separate" by accident.

So, VANOC is saying its friendly handshake with Canada's largest media conglomerate isn't an ethical problem for those newspapers. And so, not surprisingly, is the business empire on the other end of the deal.

But we wonder: Any regular folks up in B.C. -- the people footing the rather handsome bill for this show -- see it differently?

Comments | Category: Olympic sponsors , Vancouver 2010 Games , Winter Games |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

April 22, 2008 11:06 PM

A golden moment for Molson

Posted by Ron Judd

This might have been inevitable, but it still leaves a bit of a ... well, funky taste in our mouth.

WIth only 660 days until the cauldron lighting in/on/at/near (how are they going to do that, exactly, with a dome?) B.C. Place Stadium, Molson has been named the official beer of the 2010 Winter Olympics, the Vancouver Province reports tonight.

Seems a shame, given some of the notable B.C. breweries. But Vancouver Games CEO John Furlong points out that Molson has a Vancouver brewery that's been bottling the stuff for 50 of the 222 years Molson has been making beer in Maple Leaf Nation.

They likely won't be playing up the fact that the company is half American-owned, after a 2005 merger with Coors. But the money spends just as well either way. The beer deal, estimated at between $3 million and $15 million, gives Vancouver organizers a cool $715 million in total sponsorship cash in the bank -- close to the overall target of $760 million.

Don't look for a special Molson Oly brew soon, though. The brewer must wait until the end of the year to start using the Olympic logo, because of an existing International Olympic Committee contract with Anheuser-Busch, the Vancouver Sun reports.

Speaking of great beer contracts in Olympic history: True Oly trivia buffs will note that Labatt's was the official beer for the '88 Calgary Games, Canada's most recent Olympics. Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser spent big bucks to win the Salt Lake City and Turin contract, which runs through 2008.

But no brewery in Games history hitched a ride on the Olympic publicity bandwagon as effectively as Park City's Wasatch Brew Pub, which put out its own, in-your-face "Unofficial" Olympic ale, coupled with the now-famous Polygamy Porter, (motto: "Why have just one!"), both rolled out before the 2002 Salt Lake Games, much to the chagrin of Olympic and Mormon church officials.

An ad campaign for Polygamy Porter was rejected by nervous Salt Lake billboard companies. But it made one heckuva fine collectible Olympic pin, which we are proud to have in our collection.

Comments | Category: IOC , Olympic sponsors , Past Olympics , Vancouver 2010 Games |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

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Blogroll and links

www.olympic.org: The official International Olympic Committtee site, with news releases, a searchable Olympic medals database and other archival information.
www.nbcolympics.com: Olympic news site from one of the Games' primary sponsors.
NBC Olympics columnist Alan Abrahamson's column/blog
Chicago Tribune Olympic sports writer Philip Hersh's blog
www.usolympicteam.com: U.S. Olympic Committee's athlete web site.
www.aroundtherings.com: Ed and Sheila Hula's Olympic News Service (subscription).
www.wcsn.com: News service with audio, video and text coverage of Olympic sports, during and between Olympics. Free, but charges for live video feed subscriptions.
www.beijing2008.com: Beijing Organizing Committee Web site.
www.vancouver2010.com: Vancouver Organizing Committee's 2010 Winter Games site.
www.london2012.com: London 2012 Summer Games site.
www.sochi2014.com: Sochi, Russia's 2014 Winter Games site.
www.chicago2016.org: Candidate city Chicago's summer 2016 bid committee site.
Olympic swimmer Tara Kirk's highly entertaining WCSN blog
Bellevue Olympian Scott Macartney's WCSN alpine ski-racing blog
Other WCSN Olympic athlete blogs.