Gay Rights Protest Targets Putin, Coca-Cola for Sochi Olympics

Gay rights activists plan to defy Russian President Vladimir Putin and pressure Olympic sponsors including Coca-Cola Co. during the Sochi Games by encouraging athletes to protest a national ban on homosexual “propaganda.”

Athlete Ally, based in New York, said it’s in talks with Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff and Canadian Alpine skier Mike Janyk as well as two other athletes about wearing logos referring to the Olympic charter, which bans all forms of discrimination in its sixth principle.

“There is a tremendous opportunity because the world is going to be watching,” Hudson Taylor, Athlete Ally’s founder and executive director, said by phone on Nov. 27. The sponsors will have “no choice” but to respond, Taylor said.

Coca-Cola, the world’s largest beverage company, and McDonald’s Corp., the biggest global restaurant chain by sales, have already endured protests in the U.S. over their sponsorship of the Sochi Games, as has Procter & Gamble, the world’s largest consumer-products maker.

All Out, a New York-based gay rights group with 1.9 million members around the world, hired trucks in October to circle Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Atlanta with billboards urging the drink maker to call on Russia to repeal the law signed by Putin in June.

By calling attention to the International Olympic Committee’s own mission statement, athletes will be able to show their disdain for the law, without violating either that legislation or an Olympic ban on political actions during the Games in February, Taylor said.

Individual Athletes

Athlete Ally is also in talks with some teams about wearing “Principle 6” clothing, he said. Olympians in some competitions can sign sponsorship deals separate to the national squad. Spectators too will be able to buy the apparel and wear it in Sochi.

“I want to compete as myself so that people see I am me,” Brockhoff, who revealed that she is a lesbian in September, said in a phone interview Nov. 30 on a break from training in Austria.

She said she would like to wear the red Principle 6 clothing in the Olympic Village outside of competitions, though she is seeking legal advice before committing to such a move.

Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble, together with France’s Atos, Dow Chemical Co., General Electric Co., Panasonic Corp., Samsung Electronics Co., Visa Inc. and the Omega luxury watch brand are the 10 main sponsors of the Games.

Gerhard Heiberg, head of marketing for the IOC, said in September he was being “pushed” by several sponsors who were worried about the likelihood of protests during the Games.

Fines, Deportation

“I think this could ruin a lot for all of us,” Heiberg said at a meeting of the Olympic body in Buenos Aires. “We have to be prepared.”

Russian Sports Minister Vitaliy Mutko said in August that athletes and spectators attending the Feb. 7-23 event will face arrest, fines and deportation if they violate the law, which officials say is intended to protect children. The maximum punishment for foreigners is 15 days in prison.

A month later, Putin said in an interview with the Associated Press and Russia’s state-run Channel One television that he’ll “faithfully follow” Olympic principles and prohibit any discrimination on the basis of race, gender or sexuality. Putin, 61, said the U.S. and other countries were trying to undermine Russia’s first Winter Olympics by harping on the anti-gay law.

The IOC, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, said in an e-mailed statement that it had received “strong written reassurances” from Russia that gay people won’t be discriminated against during the event.

$8 Billion

IOC data shows it raised more than $8 billion in sponsorship deals, broadcasting rights and ticket sales in the last two Olympics, the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games and the 2012 London Summer Games. The IOC doesn’t break down the data.

Atos, Dow, Coca-Cola, GE, Panasonic and Samsung all said through their press services that they had raised the issue with the IOC and expect all athletes and spectators to be welcome regardless of their sexual orientation. Coca-Cola said it won’t withdraw sponsorship to avoid undermining gay athletes who’ve spent years preparing for the competition.

“A more positive impact can be made through continued involvement, rather than by sitting on the sidelines,” Anne Moore, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola, said by e-mail.

Omega said it would be “inappropriate for us to take any position that could have even the appearance of partisanship.”

Marketing Changes

Other companies doing business in Russia have had to alter their marketing strategies to accommodate the law. Ikea, the world’s largest furniture retailer, decided to pull a story about a British lesbian couple in the Russian version of its global magazine, Ikea Family Live, after consulting with lawyers.

Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, said it’s ironic that Coca-Cola and McDonald’s haven’t come out in opposition to the Russian law because both U.S. companies have a strong record of promoting gay rights in their home market.

Campaigners in Russia, including a Russian lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals group, say that the law is so vague that it could apply to any open display of homosexuality and that it encourages violence against gays.

Gay rights activists poured Coke into the sewers around Times Square in New York in August to protest the company’s sponsorship of the Sochi Games. That followed a protest outside the Oak Brook, Illinois, headquarters of McDonald’s and the delivery of nearly 200,000 signatures calling on sponsors to condemn the law that activists delivered to Procter & Gamble’s headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio.

E-Mails, Celebrities

Coca-Cola Chief Executive Officer Muhtar Kent received about 500,000 e-mails over the Russian legislation, according to U.S.-based consumer rights movement SumOfUs, which helped organize the effort. All Out said it plans to intensify its campaign against Coca-Cola and the other sponsors and New York-based Human Rights Campaign said it’s enlisted celebrities including Madonna and Jamie Lee Curtis to do the same.

“This is a very dangerous situation for a global brand like Coca-Cola,” Andre Banks, executive director and co-founder of All Out, said by phone from New York on Nov. 27. “Consumers will notice that hypocrisy and I think consumers are going to hold them accountable for that.”

Rebecca Hopkins, managing director of ENS, a U.K. public relations company that helped promote the London Games last year, said sponsors won’t back out because the event is just too valuable to relinquish.

The Olympics is an “almost unrivaled platform” for reaching billions of people, Hopkins said by e-mail. If the sponsors are wise, though, they will find a way to promote a positive message without offending Russia, she said.

“Sponsors will be very aware of the power of the ‘pink pound’ and that gay, lesbian and bisexual people are a key part of their target market,” Hopkins said.

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