Exclusive: sponsorship unacceptable given concern about human rights in China, says Robert Hayward
Cans of soft drink made by Coca-Cola on sale at a supermarket in Beijing.
Photograph: Tingshu Wang/Reuters
Sun 2 Jan 2022 17.43 GMT
A Tory peer has vowed to lead a boycott of Coca-Cola products over the company’s sponsorship of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, saying its bid to profit from an event organised by the Chinese government was shameless.
Robert Hayward, who was a founding chairman of the world’s first gay rugby club and a former personnel manager for Coca-Cola Bottlers, said it was unacceptable for firms to help to boost the use of the Winter Games as a propaganda exercise given concerns over the treatment of 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang province.
Groups such as Human Rights Watch have accused Xi Jinping’s administration of crimes against humanity, growing repression in Hong Kong, tightened control over the media and mass surveillance.
The UK parliament passed a motion in April 2021 that said genocide was taking place in north-west China, but Beijing has denied any atrocities and accused western politicians of “lies and disinformation”.
Concern grew more recently when the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared from public life for almost three months after accusing a senior member of the Communist party of sexual assault.
Hayward said he would not buy any Coca-Cola products, which include brands such as Innocent, Schweppes and Fanta, and that he hoped large numbers of people would do the same.
“If they are going to take that approach, then they have to understand that there are lots of people in this world, many of whom are probably Muslims in many countries but others who are of different faiths, who just think it’s unacceptable that they should participate,” he said.
People should use their personal judgment about whether to buy a product or service, but “there comes a point … where you wish to say ‘no, this is just unacceptable’,” he said.
“It is a propaganda event and I am not going to go along with it when so many people are currently suffering and losing their liberty.”
Hayward said he was taking the stand specifically against Coca-Cola because it was “dependent on a good image with the public” to sell its goods, though he also voiced concern about Proctor & Gamble, another headline sponsor.
He said it was unacceptable for firms to “be trying to gain kudos out of a worldwide sporting event hosted by the Chinese government” given it “has been shown in the last few months to be persecuting the Uyghurs to an extreme extent”.
“I’m hoping that it sends a message to all major public companies that there is a benefit and a dis-benefit to associating themselves with major sporting events,” he said, adding he would raise the issue in the House of Lords soon.
Drawing on his experience as a former chief executive of the British Soft Drinks Association, Hayward said Coca-Cola should have had a “force majeure” clause in its sponsorship contract with the Olympic organisers that it could activate if necessary, allowing it to pull out over China’s actions.
By refusing to buy the products over the next few months, individuals could send a message in a way that would be much better than “the kneejerk reaction of saying the sportsmen and women should boycott the Olympics”, he said.
A spokesperson for the International Olympic Committee said sponsors “provide valuable financial resources that support the development of sport at all levels around the world”, helping it to redistribute the equivalent of about $3.4m (£2.5m) a day to athletes and sports organisations at all levels.
They said sponsors played no role in the selection of the host country for each Games.
Coca-Cola did not respond to a request for comment, but the company said on its website it is “the longest-running, continuous sponsor” of both the summer and winter Olympics.
“We believe the Olympic movement is a force for good, bringing people and countries together, and we’re proud to use our name to raise its profile and support the world’s most watched and revered international sporting event,” it said.