Beijing 2008 Olympic Games

Stakeholders' concerns before the games

As early as 2005, the adidas Group began an active engagement with international and local NGOs to understand their perspectives on the company's involvement in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. These early informal discussions helped inform the company's overall approach and subsequent communication efforts with the wider stakeholder community. Civil society groups in the West were highly critical of the International Olympic Committee (IOC)'s decision to award the 2008 Summer Games to Beijing. Over time, this opposition gave way to a heightened expectation that the IOC and its sponsors, such as adidas, would deliver improvements to the human rights situation in China.

International human rights groups in particular felt strongly that the IOC and the Olympic sponsors should apply leverage to shape Chinese government policy on subjects ranging from press freedom to the release of prisoners of conscience and freedom for Tibet. In April 2008 advocacy turned to protest action, as the Olympic torch made its way through Europe and North America. In China there was an angry backlash to the torch-relay protests and to calls for independence in Tibet, with nationalistic demonstrations in major cities directed against foreign brands.

The adidas Group position

In our one-on-one engagements with stakeholders, and in our public dealings with the media, our employees and shareholders, the adidas Group maintained a clear and consistent position. As a company we recognise the importance of promoting and protecting human rights globally. We also believe that the private sector can play a constructive role in advancing this goal. We recognise, however, our own limitations and ability to influence change on the world stage. We therefore focus our efforts on those areas which are within our own sphere of influence. We do so firstly by striving to operate responsibly and in a sustainable way, and secondly by safeguarding the rights of our own employees and those of the workers who manufacture our products.

It is specifically within the area of worker rights that we seek to hold direct dialogue with governments and where we have offered our support to the NGO community in their campaigns and human rights activities. We do so when the issue, or problem, is in a country or locality from which we source our products.

Our outreach

Despite the Chinese government having extended some of the rules that gave foreign reporters greater freedom during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, lengthy approval processes and visa restrictions limited the number of journalists who were able to freely visit those locations where Olympic production was taking place. In spite of these restrictions, factory visits and interviews were conducted with the German and Swiss media, including visits by German national radio and state television, to footwear manufacturing plants in Southern China.

As part of our broader stakeholder efforts during the Olympic year, a delegation of 30 investors and shareholders was invited to visit an Olympic apparel producer in Shanghai. For many of the analysts, this was their first ever visit to a manufacturing plant in China.

Responding to criticism

Factory conditions and worker rights remained a topical subject during 2008, reflecting the mainstream concerns of many of our most vocal stakeholders. In August 2008, the US-based NGO China Labor Watch (CLW) published a report on three factories producing for the adidas Group and other international sporting goods brands. The report was released to time with the opening of the Summer Olympics. Following our standard approach we launched an investigation in each factory to verify the claims being made and provided CLW with a detailed response to each allegation and issue. Read more about our statement and our detailed response on the Group's website.

As a reflection of the open relationship that had been fostered with CLW over the past seven years, the NGO shared with us an advance copy of their report for our feedback. Despite CLW's criticisms and concerns, they acknowledged 'that efforts made by adidas in the past few years in advancing workers' conditions are recognizable' although they remained steadfast in their belief that the adidas Group can do much more to help factory workers.

The Dream for Darfur campaign

China's hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games created a platform for many international groups to criticise the country for its internal human rights and environmental record. Other interest groups however used this event to apply pressure to the Chinese government, to address their specific causes or concerns. Dream for Darfur was one such campaign. Led by Hollywood actress Mia Farrow, its principal objective was to secure protection for civilians and humanitarian workers in crisis-ridden Darfur. Dream for Darfur believed that the Chinese government had the necessary leverage with the Sudanese government to secure access for peacekeepers and that given the high profile of the 2008 Olympic Games, sponsors had the ability to influence China's foreign policy agenda. The adidas Group engaged with the Dream for Darfur campaign committee over a period of eleven months and provided them with an honest account of ways in which we could, and could not, help.

Our position on Darfur

We explained that we did not hold the political leverage they were seeking to attribute to us. Nor did we feel we had a legitimate role to play in the discourse between the Chinese and Sudanese governments. We acknowledged that we shared a common concern for those affected by the conflict in Darfur and that we felt that the United Nations (UN) was best placed to develop and negotiate solutions. We wrote to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, calling for the UN to take all necessary steps to alleviate the suffering of the people in Darfur and to push for a solution of the conflict in order to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. The full letter accompanies our statement on our website.

We also reached out and consulted with representatives of Auswärtiges Amt (the German Federal Foreign Office) and the German Employers' Association, and asked them to provide us with their assessment of the situation in Darfur.

On two separate occasions during their campaign the Dream for Darfur organisers rated the responses of the IOC and the 19 other Olympic sponsors targeted by them. In the first round of assessment, the adidas Group was credited for meeting with Dream for Darfur and for reaching out to the IOC and others. In the second round of assessments, the adidas Group was awarded a B+ rating, acknowledging the letter we had written to the UN. Overall the adidas Group was only one of three multinationals given a passing grade by the advocacy group.

Free Tibet

In the months prior to the Olympic Games, the adidas Group received numerous letters from individuals and organisations concerned about the political situation in Tibet. Some individuals urged us to boycott the Games, others, like the International Campaign for Tibet and the International Support Network for Tibet, asked that adidas openly engage with the Chinese government to stop alleged human rights abuses in Tibet, to inform athletes sponsored by the company about the human rights situation and to raise the question of Tibet with our business partners in China. Representatives of some of these organisations spoke at the adidas Group's Annual General Meeting and addressed these issues to the Executive and Supervisory Board directly.

In our responses we shared our concerns about the situation in Tibet, which saw unrest and violence in the spring of 2008. We stressed, however, that the question of independence for Tibet is a political issue and that as a company the adidas Group does not involve itself in national politics or political movements.

We outlined our very long history with the Olympics, which we have supported since 1928, and our strong belief that constructive dialogue is the best way to bring about change. We have been doing business in China for the past 14 years and, as the country has opened up, we have seen reform take place through engagement and dialogue.