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

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.

Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Life & Style
life
Arts & Entertainment
Back in the suit: There are only so many variations you can spin on the lives or adventures of Peter Parker
filmReview: Almost every sequence and set-up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems familiar from some earlier superhero film
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones
tv
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Caption competition
Caption competition
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit