Sponsorship deals with Dow Chemical and BP threaten to derail the Olympics’ sustainable aims. It’s not too late to cancel them
The Olympic Games showcase exceptional athletic prowess under pressure. But to the chagrin of London 2012 organisers, a different sort of pressure has emerged: a clash between Olympic-style environmentalism and the corporate commercialism of the Games.
The Olympics have long been on a collision course between sustainability and hyper-commercialism. In a way, it’s green versus green, the green ideas of environmentalism versus the greenbacks of corporate capitalism. Right now, Olympics bigwigs are leaning toward greenbacks, placing us on a path toward greenwashing rather than real-deal sustainability. But there’s still time to shift course by terminating sponsorship deals with Dow Chemical and BP.
Flaunting the fluffy language of sustainability has become de rigueur for global cosmopolitans, and the rarefied strata of Olympics elites underscore this trend. Since the 1990s, the International Olympic Committee has increasingly woven sustainability lingo into its masterplans. In October 1999, the IOC established “Agenda 21” to “encourage all individuals … to behave in such a way as to ensure that their sporting activities and their lifestyles play a part in sustainable development”. This fuzzy language now infuses Olympics rhetoric. The IOC has even made the environment the third pillar of Olympism, along with sport and culture. Agenda 21 had its coming-out party at the Sydney Games in 2000, but it’s making its strongest showing to date in London.
But to understand the words of environmentalism we also need to consider the deeds of Olympics commercialism. The 1976 Montreal Olympics were pivotal. Like London 2012, boosters promising an Olympics-inspired economic heyday, and the then-Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau justified huge infusions of public money for the Games by assuring critics “the Montreal Olympics can no more have a deficit, than a man can have a baby”. In reality, the Games were an economic flop. The Olympic Stadium became not-so-affectionately known as the “Big Owe”, and massive public debt wasn’t paid off until 30 years later.
On the heels of this fiscal disaster, cities were not eager to host the Games and the IOC decided corporate cash would save the Olympics from financial instability. Fast-forward to today, when corporate sponsors fork out more than £63m ($100m) for exclusive 10-year deals. A three-tiered system of domestic sponsors doles out millions more, as well as goods and services. These deals help cover less than half the £2bn operating costs of the London Games (not to be confused with the overall costs of the Olympics, which are much higher). The corporate-sponsorship cornucopia has led to what sports scholar Alan Tomlinson dubs “the Disneyfication of the Olympics”.
Nowadays, it’s obligatory for each Olympics to claim to be “the greenest Games to date”. The London 2012 sustainability plan assures us that “sustainability underpins the entire London 2012 programme” and vows to be “the first sustainable Olympic and Paralympic Games”. But numerous corporate sponsors of London 2012 bring the collision of greens into sharp focus. Here are two that deserve our special scrutiny.
Dow Chemical is a “worldwide Olympic partner” for the 2012 Games, enjoying one of the elite £63m sponsorship deals with the IOC. The firm has also agreed to provide a £7m decorative wrap for the Olympic stadium. In 1999, Dow Chemical merged with Union Carbide, the notorious US firm responsible for the 1984 gas disaster in Bhopal, India. Dow’s involvement has roused ire in numerous circles. The Indian Olympic Association has insisted London dump the Dow deal. Indian government officials have considered boycotting the opening and closing ceremonies. Indian paralympians have suggested boycotting the Games. The kerfuffle led to the resignation of Meredith Alexander from the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, a toothless regulatory board set up to assess London’s sustainability efforts. Even former London mayor and big-time Olympics booster Ken Livingstone claimed the Dow debacle could create a “crisis of legitimacy for the Games”.
BP is a “sustainability partner” for the London Olympics. To be sure, Locog, the London Olympic Games organising committee, sealed the partnership deal before the Deepwater Horizon debacle in the Gulf of Mexico, the underwater oil geyser that haemorrhaged some 750m litres of oil and killed 11 workers. But BP had already established a dodgy environmental track record. In March 2005 – before signing on to sponsor the London Games – a BP oil refinery in Texas City, Texas, exploded, killing 15, injuring more than 170, and sending a cascade of toxic chemicals into the environment. Plus, despite its rebranding makeover, BP peddles oil that contributes to climate disruption. Derrick Evans, a Gulfport, Mississippi, resident and community organiser with the Gulf Coast Fund, told me having BP as a “sustainability partner” was “a joke”. He said: “It’s like it was scripted by a brilliant satirist. It’s springtime for BP in unsustainability planet.”
These firms – and others – besmirch London’s green cred. But Olympics organisers still have time to make amends. Indigenous Environmental Network organiser Clayton Thomas-Muller, member of the Mathais Colomb Cree Nation, reasoned that the IOC confiscates medals from athletes who are caught doping, so surely it could terminate these sponsorships should it wish to do so. If the IOC and Locog want their sponsorship programmes to have an ethical spine, they need to demonstrate some ethics of their own and show egregious greenwashers the door. It’s not too late.
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