November 25, 2011 5:00 pm

IOC joins Olympics boycott spat

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The prospect of India boycotting the London Olympics over Dow Chemical’s sponsorship of the games has prompted the International Olympic Committee to wade into the dispute, saying a boycott would hurt only the athletes.

The IOC was responding to a vote by the Indian Olympic Association taking place next month on whether to boycott the 2012 games because of Dow’s links to the 1984 Bhopal disaster, which killed at least 8,000 people.

London organisers have come under intensive lobbying from activists and high-profile politicians in the UK and India, who say Dow’s sponsorship and its legal battles with the Indian government and families affected by the Bhopal disaster threaten the reputation of the Olympics.

The company won a tender in August to supply a £7m decorative “wrap” for London’s Olympic stadium. This sparked opposition from groups such as Amnesty International, because Dow now owns Union Carbide, whose Indian subsidiary was responsible for the gas leak.

Tessa Jowell, the shadow Olympics minister, said: “It’s better that we have an unwrapped stadium, rather than a stadium wrapped in the continuing controversy of Dow Chemical’s sponsorship.” On Friday she said a vote to boycott the games was a “very significant step” for the Indian Olympic Association to take.

The IOC said it would “of course oppose a boycott, as ultimately the only people hurt by actions like these would be the athletes themselves”.

The London Organising Committee has largely tried to play down the issue. Lord Coe, its chairman, told the Commons culture, media and sport committee last week: “We have looked at this, and we are satisfied that Dow were not the owners or the operators or were involved with that plant at the time of the disaster.”

Lord Coe said Dow won a competitive tender and met Locog’s environmental, social and ethical values “by a distance”.

On Friday, the committee said: “We have had absolutely no indication from [India’s national Olympic body] that there are any plans or discussions to boycott London 2012.” Meanwhile government insiders have expressed doubt about whether an IOA vote would go ahead.

But Barry Gardiner, a London MP leading the UK-based campaign against Dow’s wrap sponsorship said he had confirmation from sources in India the vote would happen. “I can’t understand the level of inaction from Locog on this,” he said. He added that the committee could “still end the partnership [with Dow] and ensure the damage is minimised”.

Mr Gardiner is also calling on the government to pressure Locog to reconsider Dow’s involvement in the games.

On Thursday Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh province in India, wrote to the Indian government urging a boycott.

“The funds intended for sponsoring the Olympics would be far better spent in alleviating the misery suffered by the people of Bhopal,” he said.

The campaign has the support of Bhopal victims’ groups, Indian athletes and British MPs, including Simon Hughes, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Although Dow has been a worldwide Olympic sponsor since 2010, the campaign is focused on its involvement with the stadium wrap.

Dow Chemical has said: “Although Dow never owned nor operated the plant and the legal claims surrounding the incident were resolved in 1989, long before Dow acquired Union Carbide, we – along with the rest of industry – have learned from this tragic event, and have helped to drive global industry performance improvements to ensure that such incidents never happen again.”

The IOA’s vote is scheduled for December 5, just days after the 27th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster.

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