Hosting the Olympics spotlights more than athletic competition. It also casts light on a range of social and political issues—bringing thorny communications challenges.
Already a number of athletes have pulled out of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro because of the threat of the Zika virus. But the issue in the headline often masks other concerns. I’ve seen this firsthand. The 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul were threatened by labor problems, the threat of violence, and Korea’s growing pains caused by its advance from a third-world country to an economic powerhouse. The Korean officials hired Burson Marsteller, my old employer, to convince the world that the Olympics would take place on schedule, in an orderly fashion, and in world-class facilities. In the end, 1988 was a success—for the Games and for Korea. Later, I moved there to open Burson’s Seoul office, the first wholly owned foreign public relations subsidiary in Korea.
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This year in Rio, the Zika virus is the flashpoint, but there are underlying concerns about security, water quality, the readiness of athletic venues and infrastructure, and financial crisis and corruption in Brazil.
Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Vijay Singh, Steph Curry, Rory McIlroy, and Lebron James probably don’t need to worry about contracting the Zika virus. But public health issues are a convenient explanation for bowing out of competition when they may have other reasons.
Also, it will be interesting to see how groups external to the Olympics will try to exploit the international exposure of the Games to promote their agendas. Amnesty International opposing police violence, protesters demanding improvements to education and health care in Brazil, Black Lives Matter, and environmental advocacy groups are among the possibilities. In any event, we can be sure there will be plenty of communications challenges when the Olympics get underway on August 6.
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