Dubious Honors for ‘Dodgy’ Olympic Sponsors
As the world turned its attention to the stories of athletic triumph and defeat at the London Olympics, which closed on Aug. 19, activists have called attention to one of the Games’ lesser-known aspects — its official sponsors.
“When London bid to host the Olympic Games, we promised the world that we would be the most sustainable Olympic Games to date,” said Meredith Alexander, campaign director for global campaigning group Avaaz. For two years, Alexander served as a member of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, a watchdog that she says was set up “to ensure those promises were kept.”
“The Olympics are supposed to represent the best and the brightest of humanity,” she said. “But I can’t see any evidence that those ethical foundations are reflected in the choice of sponsors. To my mind, it is impossible to reconcile a list of companies that includes Dow Chemical, BP and Rio Tinto with an ethical or even responsible approach to sponsorship.”
As the owner of the chemical company Union Carbide, Dow Chemical arguably bears legal responsibility for the Bhopal gas disaster of 1984, during which a Union Carbide pesticide factory leaked toxic gas over the Indian city of Bhopal, killing thousands of people. By death count, the Bhopal tragedy is reckoned to be the worst industrial disaster in history.
In July 2010, the International Olympic Committee announced that Dow Chemical would be a corporate sponsor of the Olympics, alongside Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and many others. Soon after, the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games negotiated a deal with Dow wherein the corporation provided an $11 million, 900-meter-long fabric wrap to surround the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, East London, which hosted the Paralympic Games.
“Given Dow’s connection not just to Bhopal but to Agent Orange, that’s outrageous. It’s a slap in the face to disabled people all over the world.” Colin Toogood of the Bhopal Medical Appeal.
The Commission asked Alexander to research the Bhopal disaster and report her findings back to them.
“I’ve done a whole bunch of research, and I feel that the evidence is very clear that Dow Chemical bears responsibility for the Bhopal disaster,” she said.
On Jan. 25, Alexander made an appearance on the BBC’s “Newsnight,” hosted by Jeremy Paxman where she explained why she believed Dow should not be a sponsor of the Games.
Unimpressed, Paxman asked: “What are you going to do about it?”
“By coming on air tonight, to talk to you about this, I’ve taken the decision to resign from that commission, to stand up for my principles,” she replied.
After her resignation, she became the chair of Greenwash Gold, a mock prize awarded to the “dodgy company” that is “covering up the most environmental destruction and devastating the most communities while pretending to be a good corporate citizen by sponsoring the Olympic Games.”
When gold, silver and bronze medals were announced on July 20, Dow Chemical received bronze. The silver medal went to BP, responsible for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the gold medal went to Rio Tinto, a mining company with a history of labor and human rights violations around the world, including in Indonesia, where it operates controversial copper and gold mines in West Papua and East Kalimantan.
Dow Chemical, BP and Rio Tinto are by no means the only fronts upon which the Olympics’ choice of sponsors has been protested in London. In April, the UK newspaper The Independent ran a series of articles attacking Adidas, one of the official sponsors of the London Games, for “sweatshop” conditions in its Indonesian factories. The paper’s investigation, which was based on visits to factories in
Tangerang, as well as a Golden Castle factory in Jakarta, revealed that employees were forced to work overtime, paid less than minimum wage and denied freedom of association.
If the London Games were indeed the greenest Olympics ever, it is hard to imagine how unsustainable all the others must have been.