Outrage over Olympic corporate sponsors erupting around the world

Corporatization of the coming Olympic games in London is under attack from all corners of the world, it seems.

While the American AFL-CIO has joined a movement to stop the alliance between the International Olympic Committee and Rio Tinto – which is to make the Olympic gold medals – and Vietnam and India are up in arms over sponsorship by the notorious Dow Chemical Company.

Both India and Vietnam are united in their desire to remove Dow, which signed a 10-year sponsorship agreement with the International Olympic Committee, from the games, but their reasons are different. For India, the problem is that Dow purchased the company responsible for the infamous Bhopal disaster, while for Vietnam the issue is the corporation’s production of Agent Orange used to maim its people and defoliate its countryside during the war in the 1960’s and 70’s.

The chemical, dropped and sprayed from U.S. planes to kill vegetation and make it harder for Vietnamese resistance fighters to hide, brought major devastation to the country.

According to Nguen Van Rinh, president of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, speaking to mark the 50th year of the “Agent Orange catastrophe,” the U.S. dropped about 80 million liters of chemicals on Vietnam, 61 percent – 20 million gallons – of which was Agent Orange. In southern Vietnam, a quarter of the area was covered.

Hoang Tuan Anh, Vietnam’s Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism, sent a letter to the International Olympic Committee asking the agency to sever ties with the chemical giant. “Dow Chemical expressed their indifference and refused compensation for victims of the Agent Orange produced by the company, as well as their responsibility to clean up contaminated areas,” Hoang wrote.

“Spending zero effort to recover their mistakes in the past, Dow continues to destroy the current living environment. In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency listed Dow as the second worst polluter in the world.”

About 4.8 million Vietnamese were affected by Agent Orange, and up to half a million children were born with birth defects due to the chemical. Even now, the nation is trying to undo the effects of the chemical.

Vietnam Women’s Union President Nguyen Thi Thanh Hoa, writing to the International Olympic Committee, expressed dismay at the alliance between Dow and the games, saying, “Dow refuses to accept responsibility or makes compensation to tragic victims.”

“We are concerned that the acceptance of Dow sponsorship will negatively influence the image and reputation of the Olympic Games,” she continued. “With the functions of representing and protecting rights and interests of women in Vietnam, the Vietnam Women’s Union would like to call upon IOC to reconsider your decision to accept Dow Chemical Corporation as a sponsor of the Olympic events, thus preserving the good images and reputation of the Olympics.”

After the war the chemical caused illness and death among civilians in the United States. The company unloaded waste by-products from its Agent Orange production facilities and those were sold as dust control agents to municipalities in America. The entire town of Times Beach, Mo., was contaminated and had to be abandoned after the chemical was sprayed on all of its dust roads.

Many in India are upset because of the Bhopal gas leak disaster. While Union Carbide was the company that caused the troubles, Dow has been seen to inherit the guilt, because it acquired the company.

The disaster took place Dec. 2, 1984, when poisonous gas leaked from the plant, thus exposing hundreds of thousands of people. According to the government of the Indian state where the gas leak occurred, 3,787 people died from the exposure, and more than half a million were injured.

But the official estimate may be an understatement: According to The Bhopal Medical Appeal, “Municipal workers who picked up bodies with their own hands, loading them onto trucks for burial in mass graves or to be burned on mass pyres, reckon they shifted at least 15,000 bodies.”

The Indian government battled with the company, trying to get the business to pay for its mess. “Dow’s unwillingness to fulfill its legal and moral obligations in Bhopal represents only the latest chapter in this horrifying humanitarian disaster,” says Bhopal Project. “For 26 years, the victims of Bhopal have continued to demand justice; the only question is: will we listen?”

For both Vietnam and Indian victims of Bhopal, the idea of a supposedly “green” Olympics being sponsored by a company responsible for some of the worst environmental and humanitarian disasters in history is reprehensible.

On this side of the Atlantic, the AFL-CIO’s demand that Rio Tinto be barred from sponsorship is due to the company being, as the labor federation’s President Richard Trumka describes it, “a union-busting global mining conglomerate with a track record of worker and environmental abuse.”

Trumka sent his own letter to the IOC, saying, “Every athlete who competes in the Olympics deserves to be supported by entities that exemplify the best spirit of the games. Rio Tinto’s treatment of USW members in Alma [where it locked out 750 workers] abundantly proves that it is not such an entity.”

The AFL-CIO joined forces with the United Steel Workers and others in the movement to kick Rio Tinto “off the podium.”

Activists and leaders in each country and organization argue that these corporations are using the prestige of the Olympics, as well as its environmentally friendly image, to “greenwash” rotten corporate images.

Photo: Corporate logo at 2008 Olympic handover party. Tim Bradshaw // CC 2.0