2014 Olympic Sponsors Faced with Criticism Over Russia’s Anti-LGBT Sentiment

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Major global brands shell out millions of dollars to attach their names to the Olympics, usually one of the world’s perennial feel-good stories. However, global politics can sometimes get in the way of that. 

Enter Sochi, Russia, where the world’s top winter athletes will be gathering next year to perform their athletic fetes. Unfortunately for them and for the brands involved, Russia has just passed several anti-LGBT laws that has left everyone involved wondering whether they should take a stand on the issue or just stick their heads deep in the snow and not mention it.

Already, 320,000 people have signed a Change.org petition protesting Russia’s position, which was delivered to the International Olympic Committee Wednesday, but it remains to be seen what the corporate sponsors will do.

According to Buzzfeed, “only one corporate sponsor of the Olympics, General Electric, is pressing the International Olympic Committee publicly for action in support of human rights.” Others, such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, said they have done their part elsewhere to support LGBT rights, but told Buzzfeed they aren’t planning to ask the IOC to do anything about the ongoing public anti-LGBT state of affairs in Russia.[more]

As Buzzfeed points out, Coke is a couple of years into a five-year, $3 billion plan to build up its business in Russia, while McDonald’s announced back in February that it planned to double its presence across the world’s largest geographic nation over the next three years. 

A GE spokeswoman told Buzzfeed, “GE believes the Olympic Movement has many positive influences beyond the sports arena. GE speaks regularly with the IOC on a variety of topics, including issues of great concern like human rights. We strongly support the IOC’s recent statement that sport is a human right and the Olympic Games should be open to all. We expect the IOC to uphold human rights in every aspect of the Games.”

However, organizations such as Human Rights Watch want brands to do more than just issue statements in support of the LGBT community. “Companies that are concerned about their image with consumers are not going to want to be associated with a gay-bashing exercise—the commercial advantages are going to be completely undone,” HRW president Kenneth Roth told Buzzfeed. “Olympic sponsors make enormous investments by being associated with the Sochi Olympics. They don’t want to be part of a debacle.”

The whole affair has led to a massive boycott of Russian vodka and could lead to a boycott of sponsor products, too, if companies don’t react within consumers’ best interests. Activists are unhappy with P&G, for example, because it hasn’t pulled its advertising from a Russian news station that featured a news personality who spoke strongly against gays, AdAge reports.

The IOC and sponsors aren’t the only ones charged with fielding this sensitive subject. Athletes too are faced with an important decision, either acting out in support of gay rights during the Games or remaining mum in fear of retaliation for showing public support while in the country. 

“In some ways we have to treat it like any other distraction,” Alex Cohen, the senior sport psychologist for the US Olympic Committee, told USA Today. “You never want to try to block anything out. If it’s on your mind it’s for a good reason. You want to deal with it, not push those things away.”

“I think it’s really sad what’s happening over there,” Halfpipe snowboarder Elena Hight told the paper. “It’s good that it’s bringing light to the subject and for us as athletes it’s giving us the opportunity to share our opinions. I don’t personally agree with what’s going on over there and hopefully getting people talking is the best thing that can happen.”

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