It was just a few months ago that orange-clad monks in Tibet and activists across the world took to the streets in protest of China's crackdown in the Tibetan region, and consequently, the Olympic Games being held in Beijing this summer. In the days that followed, the Olympic torch came under fire as it wound its way across the world, nearly snuffed out by demonstrators on multiple continents, and successfully so, if only briefly, during the Paris leg of the journey.
From the media coverage at the time, it seemed that this story, like the torch itself, would not be allowed to die out in the lead-up to August 8th, 2008, when the Olympics are set to kick off. But as reported last week by Time Magazine, in the wake of the deadly earthquake in the Sichuan province and the outpouring of grief, the media interest in the Olympic story has waned. Yet, according to a poll last month by Kelton Research (full disclosure: I am currently employed by the research firm), American public opinion about the Olympic Games, China, and the perceived actions of the host country has changed very little.Generally speaking, the vast majority (92%) of Americans believe that the Olympics should be kept separate from politics, yet over a quarter (26%) have considered avoiding this year's Summer Olympics due to concerns over China's human rights violations and poor environmental record. Both of these numbers are statistically identical to those from a poll taken in March, before the Sichuan earthquake and at the height of the protests. In these uncertain times for television networks, any audience boycott of the Games could spell trouble for NBC, advertisers, and of course, China.
Moreover, unlike some government officials such as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and U.N. secretary general Ban Ki-moon who are planning on boycotting the opening ceremonies in Beijing, 22 percent of Americans feel that the United States should boycott the Games outright. Though such a move is highly unlikely, ratings would surely suffer further if American and other international athletes refused to participate or were barred from taking part. An American boycott would be the first time the US refused to attend an Olympics since President Carter boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics in response to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. That said, President Bush is expected to attend the opening ceremony, and last week Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced his intention to attend as well.
Yet Tibet and government boycotts are just a few of China's Olympic problems. The country has long been considered to be one of the world's biggest polluters, and the smog and poor air quality has athletes pondering the health risks of competing there. According to the Kelton Research poll, one in two of Americans say they will question the validity of the Olympics, and any records set or medals won, if athletes pull out of the Games due to environmental concerns. Already two top athletes, Ethiopian marathon runner Haile Gebrselassie and recently retired Belgian tennis player Justine Henin, have reportedly begged off representing their home countries, citing concerns for their health. Gebrselassie, who holds the world record for his sport, was heavily favored to win the gold medal, while Henin will not have a chance to defend her 2004 gold medal win.
And how is this affecting consumers of Chinese products? Nearly half (46%) of Americans say that in light of the recent controversy, they're likely to cut back on buying goods made in China or by Chinese companies. After recent scandals involving dog food, toothpaste, and other Chinese product, any decline in consumer sales could lead to some trouble down the road for companies that import Chinese products.
Could all this controversy have been avoided? Many Americans think so. Fifty-one percent believe that International Olympic Committee should never have awarded China the Summer Games in the first place. China and the IOC took a gamble with taking the Olympics to Beijing, and come August, we'll see if that bet was worth the price.