The Olympic rings hide a multitude of sins

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Dow Chemical, a long time global supporter of the Olympic movement, is funding a £7m fabric wrap to encircle the London Olympic Stadium. The size of the deal and the prominence it will provide Dow throughout the Games has angered India, where the company is still widely vilified for its link to the Bhopal disaster in which, says Greenpeace, 20,000 Indian citizens were killed and thousands more injured by a poisonous leak from the Union Carbide chemical plant in 1984.

Dow acquired Union Carbide in 2001, 16 years after the Bhopal disaster and after $470m in compensation had been paid out. But Indian anger remains directed at Dow because of the subsequent problems that the people of Bhopal continue to endure. Health and human rights groups claim high rates of congenital deformities and cancers because most continue to depend on groundwater still contaminated with pesticides from the original disaster.

Local politicians from Madhya Pradesh, where Bhopal is located, first approached the Indian sports minister in October to ask for an Indian boycott of the London Olympics because of Dow’s involvement. The request attracted considerable media coverage in India and 21 Indian Olympians apparently wrote to Locog urging it to scrap the deal with Dow, citing it as “offensive to the spirit of the Olympic Games”.

Pressure has also been applied by Amnesty International, which released an open letter last week claiming Locog had put itself in an “untenable” situation in granting the wrap contract to Dow, in the face of its “continuing failure to address one of the worst corporate related human rights disasters of the 20th century”.

While India is currently saying it is not considering a boycott of London 2012, many are still calling for it.

How do you explain the absence of some of the bigger, smarter and more respected brands from the Olympics such as Apple, Ford or Google?

Thus far, the IOC and Locog have expressed “satisfaction” with Dow’s involvement. Olympic representatives, including Lord Coe, have pointed out that Dow did not own Union Carbide at the time of the Bhopal leak, that a compensation payment has been made and the IOC says: “Dow is a global leader in its field of business and is committed to good corporate citizenship”.

Despite the embarrassment of potentially losing Indian participation, the IOC is unlikely to back down over Dow. To jettison an Olympic sponsor because they are deemed incompatible with the Olympic brand or of possessing an unacceptable corporate reputation would be tantamount to commercial suicide.

Examine the list of 2012 sponsors and you uncover a veritable rogues’ gallery of corporate reputation that hardly adheres to the Olympic motto of ’faster, higher, stronger’. Tier 1 sponsors include brands like BP, which many would deem one of the most distrusted and disliked corporations on the planet. Right next to it is Lloyds TSB, a brand I consider so poorly managed that it would have gone out of business without public funding. Further down the list is Thomas Cook, which would perhaps not have needed its emergency cash bailout last week if it hadn’t already blown £20m to sponsor 2012.

A century ago sponsorship began with a genuine relationship between a supplying company and an event keen to borrow or even acquire its services. When watch brands like Longines, TAG Heuer and Omega sponsored the early modern-day Olympics, they did so because they were manufacturing advanced time pieces that were essential to the measurement of the races. In several cases, the time pieces in question were actually purchased by the Olympic organisers. In others, the equipment was donated free for appropriate (but free) recognition.

Even into the commercial era of the 1980s, when larger and larger sums started to change hands for sponsorship opportunities, there was at least a rational link between the likes of Nike or Adidas associating their products and logos with the Olympic movement.

Today, most of the companies big enough to afford an Olympic sponsorship and desperate enough to seek out global recognition are often those most in need of reputational rescue. How else do you explain the absence of some of the bigger, smarter and more respected brands from the Olympics, like Apple, Ford or Google? These brands don’t need a massive reputational smokescreen and they also choose to spend their money far more effectively elsewhere on genuine promotions of their products and services.

The reason the IOC will keep Dow and risk losing Indian participation is not because of intransigence or a respect for the “corporate citizenship” of Dow Chemical. It’s because to only accept associations with brands consistent with the Olympic ethos would be to restrict its commercial options to the very companies that don’t need their help in the first place.

The only conceivable option for consistency would be to realign the Olympic brand so it fits the kind of brands it is likely to depend on for future sponsorship revenues. How about the motto ’dodgier, lower, weaker’ to fit that repositioning?

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