Olympic organizers face sponsorship questions | Globalization | DW | 27.07.2012
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Olympic organizers face sponsorship questions

The International Olympic Committee has been criticized for entering into a major sponsorship deal with a company critics say is linked to the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India.

Put aside an athlete's dismissal for tweeting a joke about foreigners, the failed drug tests and the mistaken display of South Korea's flag at the North Korean women's soccer team pre-games match; it is the issue of sponsorship that has caused the most controversy in the lead-up to the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Big-name backers like McDonald's and Coca-Cola - as well as BP and miner Rio Tinto were chosen by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), not London organizers, to pour finances into the 17-day spectacle.

In particular, the IOC's 2010 decision to retain the sponsorship of Dow Chemical, which had been associated with the Olympics since 1980, surprised many in London, India and elsewhere, because of a link to the Bhopal disaster in 1984.

Worst industrial accident

Thousands of Indians were killed and many more were injured when a pesticide factory leaked toxic gases into the atmosphere. It is still considered one of the worst industrial accidents of all time. The area in Bhopal has never been properly decontaminated and people still suffer ill health as a result.

American company Union Carbide, which jointly owned the Bhopal plant with the Indian government, said the leak was the result of sabotage. Union Carbide sold its Indian assets in 1994, and the company was purchased by Dow in 2001.

Although a full and final settlement was reached with Union Carbide in 1989, some lawsuits are still ongoing. Amnesty International says that by buying Union Carbide, Dow took on its liability for the accident and compensation for the victims.

Michael Gottlob, an expert on India from Amnesty International told DW, "What's frustrating about it is when responding to inquiries of this or that company, the organizations simply take the standpoint of Dow Chemical, they say, we don't have anything to do with it, we didn't buy the company until 16 years after the accident."

Victims of the Bhopal disaster

Thousands were killed when the Bhopal plant leaked toxic gases

While Dow did not respond directly to the specifics of Amnesty's accusations, a spokesman told DW that "although Dow never owned nor operated the plant, we - along with the rest of industry - have learned from this tragic event, and we have tried to do all we can to assure that similar incidents never happen again."

Selling point

Over the last nine years London organizers have publicly prided themselves on upholding their commitment to ethical and environmental concerns. When the London Organizing Committee put in their bid to host the games back in 2003, it sold its plan to be the greenest games ever, and the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 was formed to make sure this promise was kept.

But critics accuse the organizers of double standards. "It's astonishing that a company sponsoring an event like the London Olympics, which credits itself with holding the most sustainability-friendly games, is involved in the fall-out of one of the biggest environmental disasters," Gottlob added.

"When you look at the Olympic Charter, you see that it's based on various fundamental principles," he said. "Certain companies aren't suitable to sponsor the Olympics…They [the organizers] are acting as if it's more important to them to earn money than to adhere to their own principles."

Controversial sponsors

At the end of 2011, London organizers called for company tenders to provide a "wrap," an advertising banner that will appear on the outside of the Olympic Park building. Dow Chemical was granted the contract.

"The Olympics come with a halo effect, it's a unique brand," Meredith Alexander, former member of the Sustainability Commission told DW. "I don't buy the idea that they couldn't find other sponsors."

"The wrap is completely unnecessary. We knew we couldn't do anything about Dow as sponsors as such," she said, explaining that the contract to provide the wrap was down to London 2012 organizers.

"We [the Commission] issued a statement on Dow and the wrap, which I absolutely disagreed with, I felt my name was used to justify the unjustifiable by calling Dow a responsible company," she added.

In January 2012, Alexander resigned her position at the Commission in protest at the Dow sponsorship.

While Alexander agrees that London 2012 organizers have made reasonable strides in staging greener Games, she said sustainability is "not just about trees and pandas, it's also about people and meeting their needs."

She is now associated with the Drop Dow Now and Greenwash Gold activist groups, which are opposed to corporate sponsorship of Olympic events.

Olympic Stadium, London

Dow Chemical was contracted to provide the advertising 'wrap' for the Olympic stadium

Ethical requirements

The London Assembly - the city's parliament - has also passed a motion urging the IOC to review its ethical requirements for sponsors.

"Our main concern was the involvement of Dow… to have a wrap sponsored by Dow was a huge mistake," Darren Johnson, Green Party Assembly member, told DW.

"I'm not against sponsorship and private investment, but there need to be much stricter standards. They need to review their ethical criteria, sponsors who contradict the ethos of the Games should be ruled out," he said, adding that the fact that Dow didn't own the company responsible for Bhopal at the time does not absolve them of responsibility.

While McCarthy supports the motion for ethical requirements, he also says that a lot has been done to involve independent caterers and include locally sourced products. McDonald's, he said, only provides 10 percent of meals served.

Critics say there is a catch. "London 2012 organizers have gone to great lengths to involve and promote local caterers, but they have been undermined by the multinationals chosen by the IOC," Johnson told DW, explaining that those caterers had been subject to restrictions on what they could sell and use during the Games.

While some London Assembly members as well as London mayor Boris Johnson and UK Prime Minister David Cameron have defended big sponsors' involvement in providing money for the games, and Dow Chemical in particular, there is a lot of support for stricter ethical standards in choosing sponsors.

McCarthy advises "calm judgment" on the issue and, although the Sustainability Commission could do very little about the big sponsors for London 2012, "in future, there should be proper engagement with NGOs and other groups," he said.

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