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Dow Controversy The London Games organisers could have done without

Updated: December 17, 2011 2:38 pm

The sponsorship by Dow Chemical of the Olympic Stadium wrap has stirred a controversy, which the 2012 London Games organisers could have done without. Amid a war of words between supporters and opponents of this move, it looks that these Games will also have a legacy of controversy. While the opponents of the sponsorship have called “Dow as sponsor of Olympics is like a dance on the graves of Bhopal gas victims,” London Olympics chief Sebastian Coe has termed it “the icing on the cake”.

“On the one hand, Dow is running away from its liabilities in Bhopal, on the other hand, it is doing [a] public relations [exercise] at the Olympics”, argues Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, adding that company should not be allowed “to detoxify” its brand. Anger in India concerns Dow’s ownership of Union Carbide, which was responsible for the devastating Bhopal chemical leak in 1984. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan has even called for Indian athletes to stay away unless the organisers ended sponsorship from the Dow Chemical company. Union Carbide (India) ran the Bhopal pesticide plant where the disaster happened. The gas leak was one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.

According to government estimates, more than 3,000 people died within days of the leak. It says that more than 15,000 have died since then.While campaigners say the death toll is as high as 25,000 and that the effects of the leak continue to this day. Dow Chemical will foot the bill of a temporary decorative wrap over London’s Olympic Stadium and this move has created a dismay amongst the victims and others who see Olympic Games as celebration of best of human spirits. The London authorities welcomed Dow for funding $11.4m worth of artwork saying that Dow did not own the chemical plant at the time of the Bhopal disaster.

However, Chauhan is campaigning relentlessly. In a letter to Union Sports Minister Ajay Maken he said that it was not appropriate for a company linked to such a tragedy to be allowed to sponsor an event “considered an ultimate expression of fair play, honesty and healthy endeavour”. At least five victims’ groups and some past and current Indian athletes have also demanded the sponsorship deal be scrapped.

Coe’s reply was couched with sentiment and emotions: “I am the grandson of an Indian so I am not completely unaware of this as an issue. But I am satisfied that at no time did Dow operate, own or were involved with the plant, either at the time of the disaster, or, crucially, at the time that the full and final settlement was made.” Interestingly, this issue is no longer confined between the gas victims and the organisers because others have also jumped in opposing the deal and there has been further pressure on games organisers to re-examine the deal.

The appointment of Dow as the sponsor of the wrap has also been questioned in Britain. One of the councils neighbouring Olympic Park, Tower Hamlets, is now set to debate a motion to demand the removal of the wrap because it does not meet the sustainable LOCOG sourcing code. A cross-party group of the UK MPs is launching a campaign to raise concerns over the London 2012 connection.

Mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone has also warned that retaining the sponsorship could create a potential crisis of legitimacy for the games and joined fellow Labour politician, the former sports minister Tessa Jowell in calling for an immediate withdrawal of Dow. He said that a tiny fraction of the Olympic Delivery Authority’s underspend should pay for the wrap. Coe, however, justified the arrangement before the British Parliament that the £7-million payment by Dow for sponsorship had met “by some distance” environmental, ethical and social points and he strongly defended the American company, despite ongoing concerns by Indian politicians and Olympic athletes.

“(Dow) came through a competititve process and I stand absolutely behind our procurement process. It looked at the options that were on offer and the sustainability of those options and by some distance they came out ahead on every one of those indices he said.”

He asserted that London 2012 would not reconsider its sponsorship deal with Dow Chemical and that there was never any threat of India boycotting the Olympics. Games organisers are satisfied that Dow, who are sponsoring the stadium wrap to the tune of £7m, was not involved with the Bhopal plant at the time of the disaster or when Union Carbide made a compensation settlement. “I have very, very close links with the Indian national Olympic committee and I have never had any sense at all, privately or publicly, that there was any appetite for a boycott. The Olympic Charter was redrawn in 1983 after the Moscow games and there is an obligation on all national Olympic Committees to attend games. I certainly never had any public or private intimation from anybody that this was a boycott discussion.”

“I absolutely stand by our procurement process and Dow was by a distance the most sustainable solution to our wrap and we are comfortable with that,” adding that he was satisfied, “that at no time did Dow operate, own or were involved with the plant either at the time of the [1984] disaster or crucially at the time of the full and final settlement. The Indian Supreme Court has upheld on two previous occasions the settlement that was reached by the previous owners of that plant.” On an issue which has potential of becoming very emotive, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), which has to take a final call, has done well by scotching out any move to boycott the games.

Dow, the world’s second largest chemical manufacturer, will be allowed to advertise on the 336 panels on the new stadium wrap, until a month before the games open next year. The company is working on a plan to reuse the panels when the games finish. However, London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) has clarified that though Dow would fund and make the fabric wrap, it would not be allowed to advertise on the panels.

Under strict IOC “clean venue” rules, no company is allowed to advertise during the period of the games. Dow is one of the International Olympic Committee’s “global partners”, and not a dedicated sponsor with the London Organising Committee (Locog) which has its own tranche of sponsors specifically for the London 2012 event. Dow has not put a figure to the cost of making and sponsoring the wrap, which is made from polyester and polyethylene. The wrap will encircle the venue, spanning the sides from concourse level to the top tier of seating.

Each panel of the wrap is 25m high by 2.5m wide. They are being manufactured at a US plant in Seattle and will be installed around the stadium’s metal skeleton early in 2012. Dow will be able to brand the wrap until June 26, 2012, when its logo will be removed from the surface due to the International Olympic Committee’s insistence on venues being “clean” from advertising during the games. “Fundamentally, the Olympic Games are about peace, progress, sustainability and the world coming together to celebrate our common humanity. We share that vision and are committed to achieving it,” a company spokesman said.

A games spokesman said: “Dow was appointed the supplier of the wrap following a rigorous procurement process. All of our suppliers must work within our own sustainable sourcing code and reflect our values and sustainability requirements.

By Harpal Singh Bedi

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