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When Coca-Cola parked its Christmas truck in the central London neighborhood of Covent Garden last month, the soft-drink giant likely thought that some free soda and holiday decorations in a major shopping area would be an easy opportunity to spread a little bit of marketing good cheer in Coke’s direction.
That is not how it worked out.
Gay-rights activists hijacked the celebration. One attempted to climb atop the vehicle, and protesters chanted, “Coca-Cola, shame on you!” while holding up posters that read, “Coca-Cola sponsors anti-gay Russian Winter Olympics. Boycott Coke!”
Scenes like that have been repeated around the globe in recent months, with targets including Coke, McDonald’s and other major multinational corporations sponsoring the upcoming Winter Games in Sochi. Near Chicago, a group of protesters stood in front of McDonald’s headquarters with a banner that read, “McDonald’s: Stop funding homophobia.” Trucks with billboards that said, “Speak out against Russia’s anti-gay laws” circled Coca-Cola’s headquarters in October.
Yet Coca-Cola, the oldest Olympic sponsor, has a good record on gay rights in the United States, said Andre Banks, director of All Out, an LGBT-rights group that has organized many of the protests against Coke. “At the very least, they should speak out, consistently with their own values,” he said.
So far, however, Coke has stayed relatively quiet when it comes to the Sochi Games.
The Olympic Games usually offer a great promotional opportunity for corporate sponsors, as athletic achievement, good-natured international competition and company logos beam to hundreds of millions of TV screens around the world. But this year, Russia’s unsavory human-rights record, especially when it comes to anti-gay legislation and recent homophobic comments by top officials, has threatened to change the focus of the games, leaving the 10 major corporate sponsors in a tough spot.
The primary issue is Russia’s stance on gay rights. In June the Russian parliament passed a Kremlin-backed law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” effectively stigmatizing Russia’s gay community. Putin recently attempted to reassure the critics of the law, saying that LGBT athletes could feel “calm and at ease” but then caused global headlines by adding they should “leave the kids alone, please.”
The inflammatory anti-LGBT law and statements like that have garnered the most attention, but other contentious issues include the withholding of migrant workers’ passports, forcible evictions of Sochi-area residents from their homes and harassment of civil-society groups that speak out about the games. That means Sochi has suddenly become a magnet for protest and controversy.
“The Olympic flame can throw light on the human-rights violations that the authorities would prefer to hide behind the celebratory decorations,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia program director, in a recent statement.
‘Seat at the table’
The Sochi Olympics are set to be the most expensive in history, costing an estimated $50 billion. Corporate sponsors provide a huge chunk of cash. The International Olympic Committee does not release specific data about sponsorship arrangements, but according to previous reports, top-tier patrons paid upward of $50 million each for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Over 40 percent of the IOC’s commercial program revenue comes from sponsorships, according to IOC data. Sponsors also provide products and services that support the games.
The important role of corporate sponsors is why activists have chosen them as their targets. “The corporate sponsors, especially the big ones like Coke, have a tremendous influence on what happens with the games and how they’re run,” said Banks. “They have a seat at the table.”
For this year’s Winter Games, the 10 largest sponsors are Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, GE, Proctor & Gamble, Visa, Omega, Samsung, Panasonic, Dow Chemical and the French IT company Atos.
All the sponsors approached by Al Jazeera America for this story declined to comment.
“Sponsoring the Olympics is a good will and marketing communications platform,” said T. Bettina Cornwell, a professor of marketing at the University of Oregon who has studied Olympics sponsorship. “But along with that, it’s also a platform for social issues. These major events become a stage for discussions of importance.”
‘Full-on human-rights crisis’
That is not really what major corporate sponsors want. Nor does the IOC. Speaking last October about the anti-LGBT law, Gerhard Heiberg, head of the IOC’s marketing committee, said, “Lately there has been a lot of discussion, and I am pushed by several sponsors about what will happen with this new law in Russia. Especially the American sponsors are afraid what could happen. This could ruin a lot for all of us.”
Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, described the coming games as a “corporate liability.”
“The sponsors are being associated with an Olympics that are in a full-on human-rights crisis,” Worden said, adding that she been in contact with the sponsors that have met with the IOC to push Russia on human-rights issues, albeit quietly.
Some similar concerns were raised around the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. As in Sochi, residents living near the Olympic sites were kicked out of their homes to make way for megaprojects, and workers faced dangerous conditions with few protections during the lead-up to the games. Corporate sponsors were far less active raising issues with the IOC in the past, though.
According to Human Rights Watch, there is a set of human-rights violations likely to take place around major sporting events: forced evictions, migrant-labor abuses, unsafe working conditions and repression of civil society. As it prepares to host the World Cup, Brazil, too, has started to face protests and complaints over some of these issues, especially when it comes to evictions.
“There are corporate-responsibility challenges related to any major sporting event, regardless of which country it’s in,” said Faris Natour, director of research and innovation at BSR, a corporate-social-responsibility consultancy. Natour said that companies should use their influence behind closed doors to push for better human-rights standards.
“It’s not only the right thing to do,” he said. “It is about creating a good business environment.”