SPIEGEL Interview with Adidas CEO Herbert Hainer 'I Fear these Olympics Are Now only about Politics'

Adidas CEO Herbert Hainer talks to SPIEGEL about why his company doesn't want to take a political stance on China, why pro-Tibet protesters don't have the right to disrupt the torch relay and his dream of outfitting the pope in Adidas gear.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Hainer, the Olympic torch is being guarded by Chinese security officers  who are part of a known paramilitary group. The group is normally used to protect Chinese government buildings or to stifle unrest in places like Tibet. When these people acted against demonstrators here in Europe, they were wearing Adidas tracksuits and shoes. That isn't exactly nice, is it?

Hainer: Nice? To be perfectly honest, I wasn't thinking about the word "nice" when I saw the images of the clashes in Istanbul. In the media, we constantly see people wearing our products. What I fear is that these games are now only about politics.

SPIEGEL: So it isn't a problem that these paramilitary thugs were wearing Adidas?

Hainer: It's a challenge for us to be providing equipment for the Olympic Games, for 100,000 helpers, athletes and officials, all of whom are doing their part to ensure that the games will be a peaceful and successful event. We did the same thing in Athens in 2004, and we'll be doing it again in London in 2012. The torch runners are just as much a part of it all as those who make sure that the torch relay can take place without disturbances. In fact, they are simply doing their…

SPIEGEL: …job?

Hainer: Do you think it's OK to violently disrupt the torch relay? It's OK that people use these events to publicize their political beliefs, but, in my opinion, that doesn't give them the right to violently disrupt the torch relay or extinguish the flame.

SPIEGEL: The torch relay has turned into a farce. The longer it lasts, the more professional are the attempts to exclude the public from this event.

Hainer: And the more professional are the attempts to disrupt it. Let's talk about the significance of the torch relay. The torch is a symbol of the Olympic Games, of peace and togetherness. It's a good idea. And this idea is now being misused. I believe in the Olympic ideal and in the torch that symbolizes this ideal. We should be condemning not those who have this ideal, but those who try to destroy it.

SPIEGEL: But the politicization of the games and the torch relay is a result of China's policies in Tibet. And don't you think it's questionable for these people to be attacking demonstrators on foreign territory?

Hainer: You can't exactly expect us to resolve these sovereignty issues. Our job is to support sports and the athletes, and we will continue to do so -- just as we've been doing for the past 80 years. When (Adidas founder) Adi Dassler provided the equipment for the black sprinter Jesse Owens in 1936, it certainly wasn't a welcome move in Germany. We provided the gear for nations in the Soviet bloc at the 1980 Moscow games, and that too was no political statement. It would be wrong for everyone to simply capitulate now. I continue to be firmly convinced that sports bring together the peoples of this world like almost nothing else -- certainly more than many political movements. For instance, the 2006 football World Cup played an enormous role in improving Germany's image in the world.

SPIEGEL: Can't you say to the Chinese: We don't want these people wearing our tracksuits any more?

Hainer: Why should I do that? If we wanted to conceal something, we wouldn't sponsor anything at all. I don't have a guilty conscience. But please understand me correctly: Our commitment to the Olympics is not a political commitment. It's not a commitment to any particular social system or cultural idea. It is a commitment to sport.

SPIEGEL: Major international sponsors of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), as well as Volkswagen, which, like Adidas, is sponsoring the Chinese organizing committee, are deeply concerned.

Hainer: Nowadays, anyone who supports such major events must expect that they will be used as a platform. In fact, there is no better platform. Let's be honest: The Tibet conflict has been around for more than 50 years, and now the months leading up the games are being used to market this conflict politically.

SPIEGEL: That sounds as if you are criticizing the human rights groups, Tibetans and non-governmental organizations. The games are also a platform for Adidas. You hope to position yourself as a sporting goods maker on the Chinese market.

Hainer: It's not a criticism of these groups. But I am astonished when I read in the papers that sponsors like Adidas and Volkswagen were supposedly surprised by the events. No one in our company is surprised when there are demonstrations surrounding the games. They will not be the last.

SPIEGEL: China and human rights violations  -- this isn't exactly a new issue.

Hainer: Look back in history to see what boycotts have achieved: absolutely nothing. Try talking to athletes who were prevented from taking part in the games for political reasons. I'm opposed to any boycott. I read a survey that said 88 percent of Germans are opposed to a boycott. Even the Dalai Lama doesn't want a boycott. One of the purposes of the Olympic Games is to bring the nations of the world closer together, so that they can conduct an open dialogue. We should be careful about constantly imposing our values on others.

SPIEGEL: Before the games were awarded in 2001, the Chinese made human rights commitments which they have not upheld.

Hainer: It's the IOC's job to sit down with the Beijing organizing committee afterwards to discuss how it went. I've been to many Olympic Games. More than 10,000 athletes will be living together in the Olympic village like in a giant youth camp. Chinese people will come together with athletes from around the world, which will lead to a gradual improvement in communication and the establishment of a more open society. I am convinced of that. It's an evolutionary process, not a revolution.

SPIEGEL: But isn't it possible that the protests against the torch relay are also part of this change process, and therefore necessary?

Hainer: I'm completely in favor of people expressing their views in connection with such events. But using force to take the torch away from someone -- that goes beyond the limits of freedom of expression.

'You Have to Be Willing to Engage with Countries that do not Share Our Democratic Values'

SPIEGEL: The Olympic "youth camp" is of great commercial importance to you. In addition to the Chinese team, Adidas is providing the equipment for 15 other national teams, and you are involved in 27 of the 28 Olympic disciplines. You have reportedly paid the Beijing organizing committee a total of €70 million ($112 million) for your sponsorship.

Hainer: We are not investing in an event that lasts only 17 days and at which we hope to make as much money as possible. Rather, the Olympics have been part of our brand for decades. That's why we provide equipment for more disciplines than any other company. We have sponsored events and campaigns in China for the past four years, and we have communicated to the Chinese that we support the Olympics and sports in general, and that we are looking forward to a fantastic games. We want to develop an emotional connection with consumers in China. Our goal is to reach more than €1 billion ($1.6 billion) in sales in China by 2010.

SPIEGEL: In that case, taking a political stance probably doesn't make much sense?

Hainer: You will not hear me making any political statements, neither on China nor on any other topic.

SPIEGEL: Do you have a personal opinion?

Hainer: Yes. If you want to bring the people of this world together, you have to be willing to engage with countries that do not share our democratic values.

SPIEGEL: Organizations like Human Rights Watch want you to make statements on human rights issues, on China's dialogue with the Dalai Lama and on freedom of the press in Tibet.

Hainer: It's an attempt to drag us into politics, and we won't allow it. Politics is the responsibility of the United Nations and individual governments. It isn't right to fight out these disputes at the expense of the athletes -- or at the expense of the sponsors.

SPIEGEL: But don't companies like McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Volkswagen and Adidas allow themselves to be used for political ends?

Hainer: Then we couldn't do anything any more. No World Cup, nothing. We would have to speak out against (the Basque separatist group) ETA in Spain, and in the United States we'd have to tell the government how we feel about Guantanamo.

SPIEGEL: China still carries out a massive number of executions each year.

Hainer: Unfortunately, executions are even carried out in democratic nations. But, once again, Adidas is not a political operation, and I am not a politician. Or would you prefer to see me in charge of the government instead of (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel?

SPIEGEL: Jürgen Hambrecht, the head of BASF, recently said that the Germans would be well advised to stay out of the conflict .

Hainer: He also said that in an interview with (German news show) "Heute Journal," in his role as the chairman of the Asia Pacific Committee of German Business. And he's right. For Germany, as an exporting nation, the Chinese market is tremendously important. We should be careful not to rush to judge, and we should look at things from both sides.

SPIEGEL: Don't you have to weigh the damage you inflict on your image in the West for not taking a position on China, against the losses you would incur in the Chinese market if you did speak out?

Hainer: No. The criticism is especially loud in Germany and France, but it's significantly quieter in many other countries. And in Asia, not just in China, people are looking forward to the games with great anticipation. I also believe that Western consumers -- unlike some in politics and the media -- understand our role correctly. We are involved in the Olympics because we make equipment for athletes. In any event, we have received more emailed complaints in the past about issues like the use of kangaroo leather in our shoe production than we have recently had about China. We have not noticed any damage to our image so far.

SPIEGEL: What would be the consequences if you were to suddenly take a political stance on China?

Hainer: It would certainly not make the world a better place. We, as a company, do what we can within the confines of our capabilities and our scope of responsibility, especially when it comes to working with our suppliers and factories in China. We insist on setting social standards in our agreements. In China, 300,000 people work indirectly for us. Wages are rising there, and more and more people can now afford a better life. That's our contribution.

SPIEGEL: Two weeks ago, non-governmental organizations published a report in Brussels on the athletic wear industry. Adidas was accused of exploitation in that report.

Hainer: At the same time, we are praised for having been the impetus for many positive changes. For years, we have repeatedly been attacked at our shareholder meetings, even though we are in fact a model company. We send out our own inspectors and allow the NGOs' inspectors into our factories. Those who violate our standards can expect their contracts to be cancelled. We publish an extensive social and environmental report each year. Of course, someone always comes along and tells us what we ought to improve. Just like everyone else, we're not perfect.

SPIEGEL: Do you feel hounded?

Hainer: Not hounded, but sometimes used. Attacking successful companies like Adidas generates a lot more attention than criticizing some no-name company.

SPIEGEL: In China, Adidas products are made in a total of 264 factories. Can you rule out corruption there?

Hainer: We try to crack down on every kind of criminality. I have been with Adidas for 20 years now, and we have been cheated many times. A few months ago, we fired the head of our factory outlet here in (the Bavarian town of) Herzogenaurach. We don't have to go to China to find corruption.

SPIEGEL: How often do you travel to China?

Hainer: Four times a year.

SPIEGEL: Are you in contact with Chinese party functionaries?

Hainer: I had a lot a contact with the organizers of the games. For instance, I had two meetings with the Chinese sports minister. These are intelligent people, demanding, but also extremely reliable. Of course, they too have figured out that they have an enormous market, one that everyone wants to tap, and they've become more careful as a result. It takes time to gain their confidence. But they are fulfilling all our agreements and contracts. Naturally there have also been critical moments when mistakes have happened.

SPIEGEL: For example?

Hainer: We made a bag with a Chinese flag on it, but instead of the stars, we inserted the Adidas three-leaf logo into the flag. A designer was being a little too creative. The Chinese complained, and we pulled the bags from stores immediately.

SPIEGEL: Is it is more stressful for an executive to deal with a Western democracy than a communist dictatorship?

Hainer: I don't deal with political structures, just with consumers. And they react differently, depending on the kinds of social and political conditions in which they were brought up. With some consumers, it just happens to take a little longer for us to help them realize how happy our products can make them.

SPIEGEL: You cancelled a press trip to China in late April. Is it too risky for you to reschedule the trip?

Hainer: Well, the main reason we canceled the trip was that our big new Adidas store in Beijing wasn't finished yet.

SPIEGEL: Isn't that just an excuse? You weren't exactly planning to spend days examining shelves in some store with the journalists, were you?

Hainer: Some store? You're going to make me fall off my chair. It's the biggest Adidas store in the world.

SPIEGEL: There were no political reasons?

Hainer: No. The delays in opening the store also have nothing to do with claims of reprisals by the Chinese. There were construction delays. We now plan to open in mid-June, and you are cordially invited to visit it at any time.

SPIEGEL: Are you traveling to Beijing for the Olympic Games' opening ceremony on Aug. 8?

Hainer: Of course.

SPIEGEL: During the games, the German water polo team plans to wear orange bathrobes to protest China's Tibet policy. You are the team's official outfitter. Will they be Adidas bathrobes?

Hainer: Certainly not. That's the athletes' business. We will neither stand in their way nor support them in this effort.

SPIEGEL: Would you have any objection to the Dalai Lama wearing Adidas?

Hainer: Not at all. Actually it's always been my goal to one day see the pope wearing our three stripes. With a German pope, the chances of that happening have never been as good.

SPIEGEL: After his operations, former Cuban President Fidel Castro appeared in an Adidas tracksuit several times.

Hainer: We don't have a problem with that, either.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Hainer, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Lothar Gorris and Thomas Tuma.

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