Now they are trying to mollify activists pressing for change on Tibet, Darfur and other issues, without angering China.
They have expressed concern over Tibet. Some talk privately to Beijing organisers. But sponsors insist they should stay out of politics.
“We all have to be careful about how we talk about this,” said Chris Renner, president for China of sports marketing consulting firm Helios Partners.
Sponsors were already on the lookout for controversy over Sudan, a diplomatic partner and Chinese oil supplier, as well as press freedom, human rights and Tibet.
After protests last week by Tibetans against Chinese rule — and Beijing’s crackdown — sponsors said they were watching events closely.
Likely to face immediate pressure could be Lenovo, Coca-Cola and South Korea’s Samsung Electronics, the three sponsors of the Olympic torch relay which begins this month.
Dream for Darfur issued a “report card” in June on sponsors and plans to issue an update this month.
“The companies that get a C, D or F on this next report card will be the focus of our intensive activism,” said Jill Savitt, Dream for Darfur’s executive director. She said the group will appeal to TV viewers to turn off their adverts during the games.
“It’s obviously a fine balancing act that every single Olympics encounters,” said Michael Payne, a former IOC marketing director who now works as a consultant. “The PR departments of the sponsors have got to be sensible in how they respond.”