NEW YORK CITY — As discussions about Russia's anti-LGBT laws dominate coverage of the lead-up to the planned Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, only one corporate sponsor of the Olympics, General Electric, is pressing the International Olympic Committee publicly for action in support of human rights in response to inquiries from BuzzFeed.
While several companies pointed to their own support for LGBT rights — including, as BuzzFeed reported Tuesday, Coca-Cola and McDonald's — few of the Games' key sponsors were willing to engage the IOC in any specific request for more action. Several, in fact, provided BuzzFeed with identical language backing the IOC's current position that it has received assurances from the Russian government that the games will not be affected by the new law banning LGBT "propaganda" being shown to minors.
A GE spokeswoman, however, told BuzzFeed: "We expect the IOC to uphold human rights in every aspect of the Games."
BuzzFeed inquired with all 10 of the Olympic Games' marquee sponsors, as well as several other sponsors, about their response to current questions about the anti-LGBT environment in Russia. On one end of the spectrum, the electronic company Panasonic dismissed the notion of engaging on the question of civil rights. The company "has no involvement in, and is not in a position to comment on political and social matters related to the Olympic Games or specific governments in any country or region," Panasonic's spokeswoman said in an email.
A spokesperson for Adecco, a workforce solutions company, said in an e-mailed response to BuzzFeed: "We're closely monitoring these developments, but I'm afraid we cannot offer a comment at this stage." Neither Procter & Gamble nor Microsoft provided BuzzFeed with any response to a request for comment.
The Olympics are big business for the sponsors, many of whom have a decades-old relationship with the Games and which provide the companies with opportunities to expand into emerging markets and improve their brand image across the globe. The political and human rights questions being raised about the Sochi Olympics raise difficult questions for companies eager to show their pro-LGBT efforts but also focused on the bottom line, with marketing budgets set sometimes years in advance.
Several major corporations said they would defer to the International Olympic Committee. Spokespeople from Dow Chemical, Samsung, McDonald's and Visa, for example, all provided BuzzFeed with statements that were similar to one another — down to the adjectives used, suggesting coordination among the sponsors or directly from the IOC itself — and which back the IOC's cautious engagement.
Dow and Visa led their statement by noting their status as "an Olympic TOP Partner," then stated their respective companies "believe in the spirit of the Games and its unique ability to unite the world in a way that is positive and inspirational." Samsung's statement led off with the same sentence, but noted the Games' ability to "engage" the world.
McDonald's, while noting, "There's no room for discrimination under the Golden Arches," reiterated the common response, with a spokeswoman telling BuzzFeed: "McDonald's supports the spirit of the Olympic Games and its ability to unite the world in a positive and inspirational way."
Dow and Visa went on to state, "We are engaged with the IOC on this important topic and support its recent statement that sport is a human right and the Games should be open to all, spectators, officials, media, and athletes, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation." McDonald's spokeswoman said, "Regarding the recent Russian legislation, we support the International Olympic Committee's belief that sport is a human right and the Olympic Games should be open to all, free of discrimination, and that applies to spectators, officials, media and athletes." Samsung, however, was even more vague, stating only, "We support the Olympic Movement and wish as many people as possible can take part in the Olympic Games."
The statement provided by GE was similar, but went a step further, suggesting a willingness to engage the IOC on its actions in the coming months.
"GE believes the Olympic Movement has many positive influences beyond the sports arena," Leigh Farris, a spokeswoman for the company, said in an e-mail to BuzzFeed. "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."
GE recently sold its remaining ownership in NBC — which has the exclusive rights to broadcast the Olympics in the U.S.
Panasonic's full statement, provided by Gwennie Poor, an external spokeswoman for the company, was that "Panasonic has been contributing to the Olympic Games as an Official Worldwide Olympic Partner for more than 25 years, starting with the 1988 Calgary Olympic Winter Games." She added that the company "strongly supports the Olympic Movement ideal of promoting world peace through sports" and, as noted, "has no involvement in, and is not in a position to comment on political and social matters related to the Olympic Games or specific governments in any country or region."
Others, like McDonald's, noted their own support for LGBT rights. Coca-Cola's spokeswoman noted the company has been a sponsor of the Olympics since 1928, pointed to its record as "a strong supporter of the LGBT community [that has] advocated for inclusion and diversity through both our policies and practices."
When it came to seeking action, however, Coca Cola fell back on the IOC's previous statements, telling BuzzFeed, "We take security very seriously, as does the IOC. The IOC has received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the games."
Atos, an information technology company, took a similar position, with a spokeswoman noting that it "operates and promotes diversity, and bans all forms of discrimination," but saying as to the Olympics, "The IOC position is clear and they will continue to address this important topic, through Sochi 2014, with the governmental authorities. We are fully confident that the IOC will do the right thing."
Chris Geidner is the legal editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. In 2014, Geidner won the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association award for journalist of the year.
Contact Chris Geidner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sapna Maheshwari is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Maheshwari reports on retail and e-commerce.
Contact Sapna Maheshwari at email@example.com.
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