SBJ/January 28 - February 3, 2002/Opinion

Playing the China card for our ‘show of shows’


As an "old Olympic hand" who has worked on corporate, product and governmental aspects of public relations and publicity for Olympic programs since the mid-1970s, I recently became a "new China hand" and visited the country that will host the 2008 Games.

Before departing for China, I decided it would be interesting to speak to Chinese citizens at random to find out how they feel about hosting the sporting world's "show of shows." Many Chinese now speak good English. Thus I was able to ask them how they felt when they learned that their country received the International Olympic Committee's seal of approval.

I started doing these "man on the street" Olympic interviews years ago in the hopes of uncovering unique story ideas. During my nearly 25 years at the international public relations firm Burson-Marsteller (where I was senior vice president, sports marketing), I played key roles in Olympic programs for Coca-Cola, General Electric, Gillette, Mars Inc. and others. I also traveled internationally as an adviser with high-level Australian government officials and Korean government and Olympic dignitaries. At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, I helped manage the media center, served as a troubleshooter and was also the liaison between the Koreans and the United States and Canadian Olympic committees.

I evolved from an old Brooklyn Dodgers fan into an Olympic junkie.

Now back to China. All of the Chinese I spoke to were proud that their country will play host to the world — but some more than others.

I was told that almost 94 percent of the Chinese supported the Games. I was also told that the interest was greatest in Beijing and environs with less interest — but nevertheless happiness — the further away one got from Beijing.

All but one of the persons I spoke to said they would like to be Olympic Games volunteers. The one holdout said that the Olympics were a good start but being accepted as a full member of the World Trade Organization was more important. It would show that China is fully accepted by the world. That was the sentiment of a Shanghai resident, which makes sense since Shanghai is the business capital of China.

Some other sentiments:

Hopefully the Olympics will serve as a means to bring the world closer together through sports.

People in Beijing are very excited. For many, they will be moved to better housing in order to make room for the venues.

People in Beijing were so excited when China was chosen by the IOC that it took me hours to reach someone who wasn't on the phone. Everyone was talking about the Olympics.

It will be a great Olympics. When the Chinese government decides to do something, it has a true can-do attitude.

It will be a great coming-out party for China. Even people who might have to be relocated in order to make room for venues are behind the Games.

Many people believe that the world spotlight that was turned on Korea immediately after Seoul was chosen the site of the 1988 Games hastened the country's march to democracy. It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, the Olympics will have on the Chinese political scene.

Despite any misgivings that some people might feel about awarding the world's most important sporting event to a country accused of continuing human rights violations, I feel that the International Olympic Committee's decision was correct and that the Beijing Games will be a splendid Olympics that will spotlight China in a new, positive light. There certainly will be marvelous venues and colorful opening and closing ceremonies at least equaling those of the wonderful 1988 Seoul Summer Games.

But the venues, ceremonies and sporting events will not be the most important element of the Beijing Games for Olympic sponsors. Sponsors will likely be more interested in making an impression on the Chinese government with the aim of gaining access to the huge market of consumers that they hope someday to tap.

I would not at all be surprised if there will be more companies looking for official Olympic tie-ins than there are available sponsorships or television advertising slots.

And for the pragmatic American marketer, what better way to cement a business relationship than inviting someone to "come to China as my guest."

Arthur Solomon is president of Arthur Solomon Communications, a public relations firm in Scarsdale, N.Y.

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