What should Olympic sponsors and ‘partners’ like Coke and General Electric and Visa do in light of expert recommendations that the Summer Olympics in Rio be postponed or moved?
Nearly 200 prominent scientists, physicians, and ethicists from around the globe have signed a letter arguing that the 2016 Summer Olympics scheduled to be held in Rio de Janero this August be postponed or moved due to the risks posed by the mosquito-borne Zika virus. The letter is technically addressed to the head of the World Health Organization, urging WHO to conduct a “a fresh, evidence-based assessment” of the risks that Zika poses, and asking WHO to use its powers of persuasion (and its close connection to the International Olympic Committee) to get the IOC to rethink things. In particular, the letter notes the risk implied by having 500,000 athletes and tourists visit Rio and then return home, potentially spreading Zika to every corner of the globe. To date, the WHO for its part seems unmoved.
But the letter omits any mention of the other powerful decision-makers in this situation, namely the corporations that will have their logos splashed all over every moment of the Summer Olympics, regardless of where and when it happens. The 2016 Olympics’ “Worldwide Olympic Partners” include Coca-Cola, Bridgestone, McDonald’s, General Electric, Visa, and others. Dozens of other companies are listed as “Official Sponsors,” “Official Supporters,” or “Suppliers.” Becoming a top-tier Worldwide Olympic Partners costs something on the order of $100 million. That kind of cash surely brings considerable influence. The question: should they use that influence with regard to the Zika issue, and what should their position be?
Ethically, these companies should be wary of contributing to an event that could globalize an ongoing epidemic. The trouble is that expert opinions on the degree of danger here differ. The letter-writers represent a very broad range of experts, but not all of the experts that there are. The head of the US Centres for Disease Control, Dr Tom Frieden, for example says “There is no public health reason to cancel or delay the Olympics.” But there’s reason to be risk averse, here. The worst-case scenario if the Olympics proceed as planned is very bad, and includes unnecessary birth defects as well as potential neurological damage in adults. And the worst-case scenario isn’t science fiction: it’s a plausible hypothesis set forward by a substantial group of respected experts.
In reasoning about this, Olympic partners and sponsors face two dangers that could warp their ethical reasoning.
The first danger is the fact that, in terms of potential outcomes for sponsors, the situation is seriously asymmetrical. If the games get moved or postponed, this presumably throws a monkey-wrench into each sponsor’s scheduled advertising. On the other hand, if the games go ahead and if there’s then an up-tick in cases of Zika around the world, sponsors have a two-pronged defence: first, “you can’t prove it’s because of the Olympics” (which is probably true) and second, “the CDC and WHO said it was OK” (which they did). So it will be easy for Olympic partners and sponsors say — and maybe actually believe — that there’s no downside to going ahead.
The second danger is a risk that the sponsors will fall prey to the IOC’s general “can-do,” and “the Olympics must go on!” attitude. It’s widely recognized that a “can-do” attitude is what led NASA to launching the Space Shuttle Challenger, despite warnings that doing so could be unsafe. The results of that can-do attitude are notorious.
In my view, Olympic partners and sponsors should resist the dangers noted above. In the end, this may well be a case where the corporations need to trust the experts, or the bulk of them, and at very least lend their weight to the argument in favour of giving the Summer Olympics a very serious second look.