Zika Virus: Should the Rio Olympics Sponsors Back Out?

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 Janeiro 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.

2 comments so far

  1. Marque Jones on

    Well for me it’s better to be safe than sorry. The government of Brazil must make sure that their country is free from Zika virus. Most of the nation around the world will participate the Olympics, they must make sure that there will be casualties of this phenomenon virus.

  2. Jonathan Hirsch on

    In Timothy 6:10, it says, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” If this is true, it is clear that money is the root for all kinds of motivations as well. The 2016 “Worldwide Olympic Partners,” or sponsors for the Olympics, are in a situation where companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to be a part of an event that may cause a pandemic. 500,000 athletes and people from all around the world are going to Rio, and the Olympic Sponsors need to decide whether or not they want to be involved. Unfortunately, deciding factors do not derive from the concern that an actual pandemic may commence, rather motivations arise from whether or not the companies’ names will be tainted. Meaning, if there is a pandemic, companies will consider the possibility that stock prices may fall and shareholders will not be happy. With the financial motivation, the Olympic sponsors may use the six components in moral intensity to make their decision.

    • Magnitude of Consequences: Names associated with companies that could potentially support an event may largely decrease company value.

    • Temporal Immediacy: Zika virus is a disease that primarily affects the next generation, regardless, if many people start getting affected, people will rapidly find a place to blame.

    • Social Consensus: Since people tend to find a place to blame, it seems that many people may not like anything that had to do with any part of allowing the Olympics to take place at this time.

    • Proximity: If it is a pandemic, management may see the effects of the pandemic personally; professionally, the value of the company may largely decrease.

    • Probability of effect: For unknown reasons, the World Health Organization (WHO) seemed unmoved by the possibility. However, the virus certainly contains a strong presence in the area, with a large density of people.

    • Concentration of Effect: The concentration may be worldwide. People are coming from all corners of the world and the disease may spread to various places.

    Even though a pandemic is likely, these companies should base their ethics off “rights,” the right to life, rather than egoism, egoism, where the companies decides if the risk of getting their names tainted is worth being a part of the Olympic games. Therefore, regardless of the risk, companies should not support an event that may have a pandemic effect on the human race.

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