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Responding to a question about Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the Olympic Torch Relay at the Coca-Cola shareholders meeting last week, Mr. Isdell, CEO of Coca-Cola, defended the sponsorship by referring to the Olympic Torch as a symbol of hope and openness.
At about the same time, the Olympic Torch was being run in New Delhi, India. On hand were over 15,000 armed security personnel, including Indian paramilitary forces and Chinese security, and the public was largely banned from attending. On hand to view the ceremonies were a very select few, including a group of children outfitted with Coca-Cola T-shirts.
Surely Mr. Isdell got it wrong? The Olympic Torch being paraded through a hastily shortened route in New Delhi surrounded by some of the tightest security the city has ever seen with the public largely kept away is hardly symbolic of the hope and openness that the Olympic Torch supposedly symbolizes.
Ongoing protests around the Olympics Torch Relay to highlight China’s occupation of Tibet is a refreshing reminder that no amount of "feel good" advertising and "brand" associations can whitewash the reality – that the Chinese government suppresses human rights in Tibet.
The Olympic Torch Relay, sponsored primarily by three corporations – US based Coca-Cola, South Korea based Samsung and China based Lenovo – are critical to the Chinese governments attempts to paint a picture of China that is open and tolerant – regardless of the pending human rights concerns.
And China is not the first government that has attempted to use the Olympic Games to gain credibility from a global audience. In 1936, the Olympic Games were held in Nazi Germany, and the Nazis had the same goal – to extract credibility from the world community.
For Coca-Cola, however, the Olympic Games and the Torch Relay provide a tremendous marketing opportunity, associating its brand with the feel good games that has arguably the largest audience in the world. Coca-Cola has reportedly invested more that US$100 million into the Games. The promise of financial returns from the sponsorship are too great for any human rights or environmental concerns to put a damper on their plans.
While China hopes to benefit politically by hosting the Olympic Games, Coca-Cola aspires to profit financially from the Olympic Games.
Coca-Cola, it seems, will sponsor just about anything, as long as it sees potential profits.
The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games were used by the Nazis to paint a picture of Germany as a peaceful and tolerant Germany, even though the persecution of Jews, Romas and others deemed undesirable by the state in Germany had already started. The first permanent Nazi concentration camp had opened in Dachau in 1933 – three years prior to the Olympics – and Jews were not allowed to participate in the Games.
Coca-Cola was a primary sponsor of the 1936 Games. And the first modern day Olympic Torch Relay was initiated in Berlin in 1936, and Coca-Cola was its sponsor at that time too.
While the magnitude of horror inflicted by Nazi Germany is unsurpassed and we hesitate to make comparisons with China’s oppression in Tibet, one must raise serious concerns about corporate sponsorships that do not take human rights concerns into account, as was and is the case with the Coca-Cola company.
In fact, Coca-Cola’s involvement in Nazi Germany went further. While the Coca-Cola company was supplying Coke to Allied soldiers on the war front, its German counterpart, Coca-Cola GmbH, was busy selling Coca-Cola to Germans. When Coca-Cola GmbH could no longer receive the syrup from the US after the US entered the war in 1941, it developed a drink using ingredients available in Nazi Germany called Fanta.
It seems that Coca-Cola had hedged its bets. If the Allies won, Coca-Cola would rule the world and if the Nazis won, Fanta would.
To be fair, Coca-Cola was not the only company to hedge its bets during World War II. But the extent to which companies will go to ensure future markets and profits, however unethical, is disturbing. And Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the Olympic Torch Run and the Beijing Games is just that – unethical and devoid of morality.
It makes no difference whether Tibetans are murdered, tortured or intimidated by the Chinese government. Its mandate is to increase its sales in China, and it will do nothing to risk losing access to these emerging markets, particularly at a time when its sales in the US are declining as consumers become more health savvy.
The current protests around the Olympic Torch Relay are a perfect moment to scrutinize the role that corporations play in this day and age of globalization and send a clear message to the corporations that human rights must come before profits.
On the one hand, there is increased talk of Corporate Social Responsibility – which is corporation’s response to globalization – in which Coca-Cola figures prominently. Yet, when a pressing issue such as Tibet comes to the fore, Coca-Cola chooses to remain silent and endorse the Games for financial reasons, absurdly citing "openness" and "hope" to defend their involvement.
On March 20, 2008, over 150 Tibet support groups from around the world penned a letter to the Coca-Cola company labeling its sponsorship of the Games "tasteless" and asking it to ensure that the Olympic Torch does not go through Tibet.
We are not holding our breath to hear anything positively from the Coca-Cola company in this regard.
Many in India are accustomed to Coca-Cola’s doublespeak and spin to divert attention from the real issues. Ironically, the Coca-Cola company has chosen to promote "environmental stewardship" as part of its sponsorship of the Olympic Torch Relay. No matter that thousands of farmers in India have challenged the company for destroying the environment, particularly water resources, that one of its largest bottling plants in India has been shut down because of pollution, and that its own assessment has confirmed what the communities in India have been saying all along.
If we have learnt anything from the past, and the horror of the Nazi Germany era, it is incumbent upon us to demand that the Coca-Cola company act. At the very least, the company should state publicly that the Olympic Torch should not go through Tibet – an unconscionable act, according to Tibetan activists. And if Coca-Cola is serious about being a good corporate citizen and even an average student of history, it must end its sponsorship of the Beijing Olympics to send a strong message that financial profits are secondary to human rights.
Until then, we would encourage all torchbearers to cease being ambassadors for a company that is blind to everything except profits. And encourage consumers to think before they drink Coca-Cola.
Coca-Cola’s sponsorship, frankly speaking, is simply not Olympic in spirit.
AMIT SRIVASTAVA is the Director of India Resource Center, an international campaigning organization based in San Francisco, USA.