Sponsors of the Winter Olympics have mostly offered a dangerously weak response to damaging stories in the run-up to the Sochi games

Excitement is brewing in Sochi. A building site for much of the past year, the Russian city is now nearing readiness for February’s Winter Olympics.

Like all global sporting events, the run-up to the games has had its hitches. Fears of a mild winter prompted a stockpiling of artificial snow. A suicide bomber along the coast sparked security concerns.

But beyond the usual teething problems, these Olympics seem to have attracted a peculiarly large volume of bad news. Russia’s stance on gay rights is perhaps the most obvious. A law passed in June 2013 banning homosexual “propaganda” earned the country worldwide condemnation. This was followed by the arrest of 30 Greenpeace activists two months later on piracy charges, which blackened the country’s dubious human rights record even further.

Despite the XXII Winter Olympics being billed as the most expensive games on record, with a reported budget of $50bn, migrant workers are said to have gone unpaid in some instances. In other cases, there are reports of them having their passports confiscated and having to endure 12-hour working days.

Environmental concerns

Claims that the games are destroying the environment have also plagued preparations. Contractors are accused of dumping construction waste illegally, for example, leading to landslides as well as polluted water sources. Green groups maintain that a new road and high-speed railway into Sochi have permanently damaged the nearby Mzymta river. Environmental campaigners working to raise awareness of these issues, meanwhile, have faced police detention.

This litany of bad news raises serious issues for the event’s corporate sponsors. “Corporate sponsors have a huge stake in making the Sochi games the celebration of fair play and human dignity that all Olympics should be,” says Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch (HRW). The US-based campaign group has written to all the major sponsors of the games calling them to “speak up”. Few, predictably, have so far chosen to do so.

To their credit, three of the event’s biggest sponsors – Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical and General Electric – have at least agreed to meet with HRW. A further five have offered written responses, including McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble and Panasonic. According to HRW, all eight companies have expressed concerns over the gay propaganda law to the International Olympic Committee.

That’s certainly welcome, but it falls short of an open call for the Russian government to repeal the law. As for the other alleged abuses surrounding the games, not a word.

Naturally, global companies are wary of becoming embroiled in controversy. They guard their reputations carefully. In the furore currently surrounding the Winter Olympics, therefore, most revert to type and seek to cast themselves and their brands as apolitical.

Coca-Cola perhaps goes furthest in publicly declaring that it does “not condone human rights abuses, intolerance or discrimination of any kind anywhere in the world”.

Others, such as Panasonic, prefer to focus on the “feel good” factor of the games. The statement “sport is a human right” is as political as the Japanese electronics brand is prepared to get. Hardly words that will worry the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. 

The Olympics’ band of corporate sponsors, who cough up a reported $100m each for a four-year cycle of marketing rights, clearly want to remain tight-lipped. Fair enough. Sport, for them, is all about projecting an upbeat image. Even so, they would do well to lobby the relevant authorities behind the scenes.

As long as there’s downbeat stories attached to Olympic events, their reputations will be in the firing line.

ethical sports  olympics  sponsorship 

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