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Bhopal legacy

January 4, 2012

Following the Dow Chemical Co.'s sponsorship of the 2012 Olympics, India has been stuck in a heated debate over its participation in this year's Games.

The London Olympics logo
Controversy has begun months before the Games start in LondonImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The London Olympics has been a delicate affair for the Indians. The country took part in the international sports festival for the first time as an independent nation in 1948 and won a gold medal in hockey. This time around, winning medals will likely prove a distant prospect, but the Games have nonetheless aroused much public debate in India.

Sponsorship over compensation

At the core of India's displeasure with the next edition of the Games has been a shimmering white banner hung up around London's main Olympic stadium. The banner has been sponsored by the Dow Chemical Co., an enterprise that has been severely criticized in India after it failed to adequately compensate victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy. At the time, a gas leakage at a plant owned by Union Carbide in India's central city, Bhopal, killed nearly 20,000 people, according to campaigners' estimates, and left several thousand others with life-long disfigurement. The full consequences of the methyl isocyanate accident are still unknown.

Two men carry children blinded by the Union Carbide chemical pesticide leak to a hospital in Bhopal
The tragedy in 1984 claimed thousands of livesImage: AP

The Indian Olympic Association has not come out with any statements in this regard but has nevertheless communicated to the International Olympic Committee that it wants Dow Chemical Co. barred from sponsoring the Games. Dow, meanwhile, has offered to remove its name from the white banner hung at the Olympic stadium.

Boycott the games?

Senior Indian athletes such as Aslam Sheikh Khan, meanwhile, have raised the specter of India boycotting the Games. Though others stand against the idea. Top marksman Gagan Narang believes a boycott would not help in any way and that India should stick to its plan to send a team to London 2012. The differing opinions have now given rise to a heated discussion in India: Could a boycott of the Games be justified? Would it be wise to cast aside all the hard work that athletes have so far put in?

Even if India did boycott the Games, there would be no guarantee that the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy would receive any long-awaited compensation - despite the face that the suffering experienced by the victims has often been indescribable and, in several cases, compensation would hardly make a difference. In any case, Dow is a significant sponsor for the International Olympic Committee, with many national Olympic committees also receiving a part of the funding.

A 'controversial' history

The main stadium in London
Dow Chemical Co. is sponsoring the banner at the main stadiumImage: London 2012

Such imbroglios are not new to the Olympic Games. In 1956, several European nations refused to participate in Melbourne in light of the presence of the former USSR in Hungary. The effects of the Cold War on the Games were also exhibited when in 1980 the United States decided to boycott following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The USSR, meanwhile, responded by refusing to participate in the following edition of the Games in Los Angeles. In the end, however, it is always the athletes who are most affected by such decisions.

In 1968, during the Mexico Olympics, African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos wore black gloves and raised their fists in a salute to human rights during their own medal ceremony. Their message to the world was simple. India could take a lesson from such action. For example, many Indians believe that the country's cricket team could have refused to participate in the cricket series in England. Perhaps this would prompt organizers of the London Olympics to take India's complaints more seriously.

Author: Norris Pritam / mg
Editor: Darren Mara