Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Open Wallet, Insert Mouth

By SELENA ROBERTS
Sports of The Times
August 15, 2007

The sophisticated Olympic athletes who ache to unleash their inner activists in the run-up to Beijing 2008 may find themselves overwhelmed by menu choices:

I’ll take the “Free Tibet.” No, the human rights violations.

The thinking man’s Olympian who is determined to rebel against China’s “Up With People” public-relations machinery with a bold fashion statement may have some wardrobe decisions to make:

Try a “China, Please” armband to protest the nation’s oil ties to Sudan as violence rages in the Darfur region. Or sport a rubber bracelet, of the yellow “Livestrong” variety, as a bangle to support a pollution-free Games or lead-free toys or, simply, as an ode to Beijing citizens whose homes were bulldozed to make way for Olympic sites.

The choices are dizzying, even to athletes who run in Olympic circles.

“I don’t know what symbol needs to be there,” said Andy Potts, a triathlete who earned a berth on the United States Olympic team last month at the Pan American Games, in a recent interview at his home in Colorado Springs. “But it seems like every time you turn around, there is someone trying to make a statement about something.

“It’s lost its meaning a little. It has got to be something original and something profound and something genuine.”

The authenticity of the typical Olympian’s soul is rarely in doubt. Most are like Potts, whose bike shares the same modest living room space as a baby swing and a bunch of bananas.

These athletes train and sacrifice for little wealth or fame, existing on the timeline of a quirky election candidate who resurfaces in public every four years to run again.

Marketers largely ignore the badminton ringers. And they couldn’t name an archer outside of Robin Hood (who was an advocate for the poor but never medaled).

It will be the prime-time podium — reserved for track stars and swim kings and Dream Teamers — that will illuminate those Olympians with a cause, and, maybe more importantly, those without one.

Who dares to arrive in Beijing without a political statement? For some athletes, it will be a personal choice. To light a candle for cultural awareness is out of their character. For others, it will be a business decision. To humiliate China with a stance is to upset their corporate partners.

As a new member of McDonald’s Olympic ad campaign, might the swimmer Michael Phelps think twice before McChallenging China’s dubious record on food safety?

As a Nike pitchman in a Swoosh-factory part of the world, as a Coca-Cola endorser twinned with China’s Yao Ming, will LeBron James risk his global expansion plans to question the nation’s labor issues?

“I think you take a guy like LeBron James,” Potts said. “He’s very cognizant of what he sells himself as and whether or not he puts himself out there politically.”

James has already declined to sign a petition protesting China’s link to Darfur this spring because, as he recently told Time magazine, he was still educating himself on the issue. (Hint: Google “genocide.”)

He knows Wall Street, though. James once told The Akron Beacon-Journal: “I tell my friends and teammates that you have to go global. In basketball and business.”

James’s platinum-level ambitions, including his goal to be the world’s richest athlete, fly in contrast to his selflessness as a player.

James is extremely self-aware, increasingly sensitive about how his money-bags tone has been received in recent months.

Maybe that’s why he bristled when asked about his branding strategy for China during a recent interview in Las Vegas, where he was practicing with the United States team for its coming basketball qualifying tournament.

“I’m not waking up saying, Let’s build a brand in China,” James said.

But it is all but written in his business planner. And in Mandarin, no less. In preparation for Beijing, James has been taking Mandarin lessons, which were understandably knocked down the priority list during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ playoff run.

“My N.B.A. season went a little further than I thought it would, so I’m a little rusty,” he said.

There is enlightenment in his effort. He is reaching out, not just reaching into China’s vast cookie jar of consumers. But like a lot of the American corporations he represents, James is into Beijing 2008 for economic growth, not political debate.

That’s his option. In the coming months, at every Beijing qualifying event, athletes will be making decisions on which cause, if any, they’ll support.

“I think there is an opportunity and a platform to talk about and bring about awareness to social issues, but it’s a personal choice to tackle it,” Potts said. “Hopefully, it remains a personal choice because you’d hate to have it scripted out for you. When it’s scripted, it’s just not genuine. I think people can see through that.”

Wearing a rubber bracelet will not automatically authenticate a star as an advocate. And preferring to sidestep politics will not diminish an Olympian. It’s the motive behind the resolve that matters.

E-mail: selenasports@nytimes.com

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