Thursday, September 18, 2014


Russia

Gay-Rights Activists Confront Corporations On Sochi Olympic Sponsorship

Gay-rights protesters in New York's Times Square call on Coca-Cola to drop its sponsorship ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. (photo courtesy of RUSA LGBT)
Gay-rights protesters in New York's Times Square call on Coca-Cola to drop its sponsorship ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. (photo courtesy of RUSA LGBT)
By Richard Solash
WASHINGTON -- Gay-rights advocates in the United States are crying foul at the corporate giants sponsoring the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

The 10 "worldwide Olympic partner" companies are complicit in Russia's crackdown on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, the activists say, as long as they back the games or do so without taking a stand.

Protesters like Russian-American Oleg Jelezniakov know that raising concerns about corporate responsibility has been enough to make companies squirm, and sometimes take action, in the past. He was one of some 50 protesters who gathered beneath the towering Coca-Cola sign in New York City's Times Square late last month to pour the world-famous soft drink into the sewer.

Jelezniakov held a poster bearing a logo he had designed for the rally, depicting Coca-Cola's famous white lettering morphed into handcuffs against a background of dripping red blood (see left).
A protest image created by Russian-American Oleg Jelezniakov targeting Olympic sponsor Coca-ColaA protest image created by Russian-American Oleg Jelezniakov targeting Olympic sponsor Coca-Cola
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A protest image created by Russian-American Oleg Jelezniakov targeting Olympic sponsor Coca-Cola
A protest image created by Russian-American Oleg Jelezniakov targeting Olympic sponsor Coca-Cola

"We'll see how serious they are about their integrity, but there's a lot of say that they have as a main sponsor," Jelezniakov says. "They can definitely address the [International Olympic Committee], they definitely can make some kind of statement in Sochi -- and pretty much, yes, they can withdraw their sponsorship."

Earlier this summer, some of the same activists had dumped Russian vodka into the New York streets to protest Russia's ban on gay "propaganda"​:

The law, signed by President Vladimir Putin in June, institutes fines and possible jail time for any alleged promotion of "nontraditional sexual relations" to minors. Rights groups say it institutionalizes homophobic attitudes in Russia and has already spurred violence.

Advocates and Western officials have also expressed concern that the vaguely worded ban could cast a shadow of discrimination over the upcoming Olympics, possibly leading to the persecution of gay athletes and visitors. Russian officials say those concerns are unwarranted, and the head of the Sochi Olympics this week offered a fresh assurance that the law will not apply to people who participate in or attend the events.

The Coca-Cola dump came after about a dozen activists picketed the Chicago-area headquarters of McDonald's, another official sponsor of the games, on August 17. An Olympics-themed McDonald's commercial spliced together with footage of gay Russian teens being bullied also emerged on the Internet recently, before being removed.

An online petition calling on sponsors to pull out of Sochi has garnered more than 200,000 signatures. The petition was hand-delivered by its organizer to the headquarters of Olympics sponsor Proctor & Gamble.

'The Right Thing To Do'

The largest LGBT rights group in the United States, the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign (HRC), threw its weight behind the cause in a letter sent to the CEOs of the sponsoring companies on August 29.

Spokesman Paul Guequierre said the HRC is not calling for the companies to withdraw their sponsorship but to make clear that they choose the Olympic spirit -- not the spirit of the Russian government.

"We're calling on the sponsors to use their position [and] prominent place in the Olympics to really denounce anti-LGBT laws like the one the Russian government has implemented, make sure that the visitors and athletes are safe, but also to stand with the Russian LGBT community to make sure that they're safe as well," Guequierre said. "Our hope is that they'll do what we ask not because we're asking, but because it's the right thing to do."
Construction of one of the planned venues for the Sochi 2014 Olympics.
Construction of one of the planned venues for the Sochi 2014 Olympics.

There are tentative signs that some sponsors are starting to get worried about the law's effect on the games.

Gerhard Heiberg, head of marketing for the International Olympic Committee, said on September 8 that he was being "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," Heiberg said.

'We Are Doing Business'

But none of the corporate sponsors contacted earlier by RFE/RL mentioned any plans to drop their sponsorship or publicly raise the issue of gay rights during the Olympics.

RFE/RL contacted all 10 major sponsors of the Sochi Games -- Atos, Coca-Cola, Dow, General Electric, McDonald's, Omega, Panasonic, Proctor & Gamble, Samsung, and Visa -- as well as several official suppliers.
Protesters hold a demonstration against Russian antigay legislation and President Vladimir Putin in front of the Russian Consulate in New York City on July 31.
Protesters hold a demonstration against Russian antigay legislation and President Vladimir Putin in front of the Russian Consulate in New York City on July 31.

Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Visa, and Dow said they are "engaged with the IOC" on the matter and support statements by the committee affirming that the Olympics should be discrimination-free.

Coca-Cola also referred to examples of past support for the LGBT community.

McDonald's said that "There's no room for discrimination under the Golden Arches" and added that the company "encourages ongoing, constructive dialogue" on the situation.

The public-relations agency for Microsoft, a supplier for Sochi, declined to comment.

Another supplier for the Olympics is Swedish automotive manufacturer Scania, which will deliver about 700 trucks for Sochi.

"As long as there are no sanctions on doing business in a certain country, we are doing business," Hans-Ake Danielsson, Scania's press manager, told RFE/RL. "If you should take into consideration different things like, 'Shall we deliver to countries with the death penalty, for instance the U.S. and China?'.... We have to act on a commercial basis. Otherwise, we couldn't sell almost anywhere in the world."

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