Winter Olympics 2014: Olympic sponsors have found taking an ethical stance is a good business strategy. But can Sochi’s true legacy be real change?

The IOC should tell host cities the price of the Games is unparalleled scrutiny

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The Independent Online

If it were not for Sochi hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics, I would have very little idea about the scale of persecution suffered by the gay community in Russia.

Such is the intensity of the spotlight offered by big sporting events, however, I now know the shocking reality. I guess I should thank the International Olympic Committee.

I realise that this was not the intended consequence of the decision in 2007 by IOC members to award the Games to the Black Sea resort after they were personally wooed – in English and in French – by Vladimir Putin, the usually xenoglossophobic Russian president.

Ahead of the vote in Guatemala City, the IOC fell under the spell of one of the world’s most powerful men and his promise to build a $12bn shrine to winter sports (the price tag has since risen to $51bn – £31bn).

It should not be surprised seven years later to stand accused of condoning his controversial social policies by gifting him a pulpit from which to preach them.

I have never been a believer that the IOC can be wholly agnostic about who it does business with despite the protestations of its president, Thomas Bach, that it must be “politically neutral without being apolitical”. (I’m not even sure what that means. In my dictionary, they carry the same definition.)

The IOC is a powerful institution that represents, or at least claims to represent, the moral core of human physical endeavour. As the guardian of the principles of fair and universal competition, it therefore has a duty to be a bit more discerning.

All this is old hat – IOC chiefs spent a large chunk of their time in Beijing in 2008 justifying the decision to bring the Games to China in the face of human rights abuses – but what is fresh is the emergence of a new commercial pressure on the IOC to adopt more of a moral stance.

AT&T, the US telecoms giant that sponsors the US Olympic Committee, this week publicly condemned Russian legislation that bans pro-gay activism targeted at children. It has been interpreted by civil rights campaigners as a catch-all anti-gay law that legitimises widespread discrimination and harassment.

AT&T is not a ‘TOP’ sponsor (one of the 10 global companies that spend about $100m each to be associated with a four-year Olympiad), but rarely do commercial backers of sport stick their heads so far above the parapet. I’d like to think it was an entirely principled response but I’m a bit more cynical. I see the power of the consumer at work here.

In the social media age, where you can get millions of signatories to a petition from just one Twitter post, companies cannot afford to disregard the will of the masses.

An internet-wide protest, visible to all and supported by high-profile personalities, is even harder to ignore than a group of protesters waving placards outside your headquarters. Plus the gay lobby in the US is a powerful commercial force.

The broader view is that sponsors are really feeling the heat from fans who have had enough of corruption and cheating ruining their sport. The orchestrated campaign to topple Pat McQuaid from his perch atop world cycling following the Lance Armstrong doping scandal was a case in point.

One of the loudest critics was Jaimie Fuller, chairman of Skins, a sports compression wear maker, who launched a pressure group to reform the governance of cycling. He’s back with Pure Sport, an online campaign whose focus over the coming fortnight is to highlight the “hypocrisy and contradiction” of the Sochi Games.

What is interesting about both of these developments is that there now appears to be a commercial value in the moral high ground. Taking an ethical stance helps you stand out from your rivals.

I got into a Twitter debate on the subject with Patrick Nally, a pioneer in sports marketing in the 1970s and 1980s, who argued that turning sponsors into moral policemen would kill sponsorship as the risks would outweigh the rewards.

Simon Chadwick, a professor of sports business strategy and marketing at Coventry University Business School, countered that taking a moral stance in sponsorship was possible with careful management of the message. Indeed, increasingly, consumers are not prepared to accept anything less.

I agree with the professor. However, I don’t think we – or sponsors – can go so far as to tell the IOC not to take the Games to countries such as Russia. That presents a minefield so far as imposing western values on others is concerned.

But the IOC should make it clear to host cities that the price of the Games is unparalleled scrutiny and that they should expect difficult questions and be prepared to answer them. It creates an opportunity for discussion and change. If they’re not up for that, don’t bid.

So if the consequence of Sochi 2014 turns out to be greater freedom for gay people in Russia, it will have been well worth the trip.