With just over seven months to go to the London Olympics, the world’s greatest sporting carnival faces its first big political challenge – the moves to have Dow Chemicals removed as a sponsor because of 15,000 deaths.
Dow is apparently paying about 1.5 million ($3.1m) to produce a giant wrap that will envelop the main Olympic stadium. But publicity surrounding the sponsorship has again ignited controversy over Dow’s ownership of Union Carbide – the company at the centre of the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster which is claimed to have cost the lives of at least 15,000 people and affected hundreds of thousands more.
Outraged Indians have demanded that Olympic organisers drop Dow as a sponsor; there have been calls – including from the Olympic Association of India – that India should boycott the Games if Dow is not cut loose.
At the outset, this feels awfully like just another piece of Olympic opportunism; the scale and global appeal of the Olympics used as a lever to advance a political cause. It looks like that, at least until you understand the depth of feeling and the ongoing problems that are claimed in and around Bhopal – even 27 years after the 1984 disaster. Full and final settlement of US$470 million ($624m) was made in 1989 – but many considered that an insubstantial amount (US$3.3 billion was the original amount sought; or NZ$4.4 billion).
Certainly the Indian government believes so – they are seeking US$1.7 billion more for compensation for problems still being encountered after the disaster. Activists in Bhopal accuse the US company of not cleaning up oil and ground water contamination.
In 2009, at the 25th anniversary of the tragedy, the BBC took a sample of water from a hand pump in constant use just north of the plant and had it tested in the UK. It contained nearly 1000 times the World Health Organisation’s recommended maximum amount of carbon tetrachloride – a substance suspected of causing cancer and liver damage. Campaigners say Bhopal has an unusually high incidence of children with birth defects and growth deficiency, as well as cancers, diabetes and other chronic illnesses – not just in survivors but among generations born subsequently, according to the BBC.
The accident happened after a leakage of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas and other chemicals from the plant resulted in the exposure of hundreds of thousands of people in nearby Bhopal. It is a state capital and home to about 900,000 people in central India, many living in closely packed slums. The gas cloud was heavier than air so kept close to the ground, hitting children as well as adults.
You can tell monitoring what happened is not an exact science by the fact that there is so much dispute about the number of deaths. The official immediate death toll was 2259 and the state government of Madhya Pradesh confirmed a total of 3787 deaths related to the gas release. Others estimate 3000 died within weeks and another 8000 have since died from gas-related diseases, leading to the generally accepted figure of 15,000 – although other estimates claim 25,000 deaths. A government statement in 2006 attributed 558,000 injuries, including about 4000 severely and permanently disabling injuries.
To be fair to Union Carbide, they did not just let matters halt at the US$470m compensation. Some estimates claim that payment only worked out to be US$550 per head for those affected – nowhere near the health costs involved in 27 years of aftermath. But the company put US$2 million into the Indian Prime Minister’s immediate disaster relief fund on December 11, 1984; established the Employees’ Bhopal Relief Fund in February 1985, which raised more than US$5 million for immediate relief; paid an additional US$4.6 million in humanitarian relief; built a local hospital, opened in 2001, from a fund with about US$90 million. The hospital treats heart, lung and eye problems.They also donated US$5 million to the Indian Red Cross.
The head of the organising committee of the London Olympics, Lord Sebastian Coe, has said they will not expel Dow as a sponsor. Protesters have burned effigies of Coe, an Olympic legend with four medals (including two iconic 1500m golds), who has said: “Dow’s links with Union Carbide came 17 years after the Bhopal gas leak and it could not be held responsible; nor was it the operator or owner when the final settlement was agreed in 1989. Dow became the major shareholders in that company only in 2001, and the final settlement was upheld on two separate occasions by the Indian Supreme Court. I feel comfortable after analysing the history of this case.”
Comfortable? The unanswered and possibly unanswerable question is how many deaths and disabilities have been caused since Bhopal, since Dow owned the company, and whether Bhopal campaigners can link deaths and illnesses to the plant and aftermath – not easy to prove.
But comfortable, Lord Seb? The five Olympic rings are said to represent all countries in the world, linking them together with the Olympic ideals and the Corinthian spirit. There has been a large dent in Olympic ideals with stories of corruption and malpractice over the years but the Olympics are still supposed to be a sporting carnival – not a cash-thirsty commercial stage for companies with damaged images to repair said images. So what if the main Olympic stadium doesn’t have the Dow wrap? Who cares?
Already the London Olympics have earned a reputation as the Greedy Games. The announcement of an extra 41 million in government funds to double the cost of the opening and closing ceremonies must cause an even nastier taste in Bhopal mouths. The total cost of the London Olympics has grown from an original 2.4 billion to 10 billion. Some think that figure will rise even further.
It’s hard not to think that some of this largesse – even the 1.5m being paid by Dow for the privilege of producing a giant curtain thing – could usefully be donated to the sick and families of the dead in Bhopal.
Without at least such a gesture – and getting rid of Dow would be even better – London is doing itself no favours at all. How anyone can be comfortable with anyone linked with Bhopal, no matter how tenuously, is beyond me.
London Olympics under fire for Dow Chemical ties
By DANICA KIRKA and RAVI NESSMAN
LONDON (AP) — Just a few months ago, Dow Chemical was hailed by the organizers of the London Olympics for saving a visual centerpiece – an artistic wrap around Olympic Stadium. Now, the Olympic sponsor is sparking the kind of controversy that no one wants.
Dow’s link to the company accused in the 1984 Bhopal gas leak – the world’s worst industrial disaster – has brought a cascade of criticism down upon the organizing committee. Protesters in the central Indian city of Bhopal burned an effigy Friday of Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London organizing committee, and one Indian official has even uttered the word boycott.
Emotions in India are still raw, for the Bhopal disaster killed 15,000 people and injured half a million, according to the government, and is being blamed for major local health problems 27 years later.
Although Indian officials say the country has no intention of staying away from the games, pressure has been building for the Olympics to sever its ties with Dow or face the risk of constant protests marring the spectacle that Britain hoped would lift its flagging spirits and foundering economy.
Dow is one of the elite club of sponsors that the International Olympic Committee places in its “Top” category, enjoying a special status in exchange for paying about $100 million every four years.
Coe would have real trouble pulling out the rug from a sponsor with such status, particularly because the feel-good Olympic image is a main reason why Dow would sponsor the games in the first place. Companies pay big money to attach their brand to the warm and fuzzy glow of young, strong and photogenic athletes overcoming the odds to win on a world stage.
Much of the controversy stems from Dow’s funding of the “wrap,” an innovative curtain designed to encircle the stadium. Olympic officials scrapped the plan last year because its cost – 7 million pounds ($11.4 million) – seemed out of step with austere times across Europe.
Architects and artists decried the decision, suggesting the image of the games would suffer – never mind that fans trying to find their seats in the steel-latticed stadium would need something to guide them through the identical girders.
Then Dow swooped in to save the wrap – and didn’t even blink at Olympic guidelines that will bar it from etching its brand logo onto the curtains.
Olympic organizers could face unpleasant consequences for being associated with a company linked to such an uncomfortable subject such as Bhopal.
“You run the risk of the association and sponsorship backfiring, to the extent that the Olympic Games might feel impacted by the relationship with Dow,” said Scott Rosner, associate director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative.
In India, where the Bhopal tragedy remains an open wound, survivors and their advocates said the Olympic wrap project with Dow ignores the immense pain they have suffered since gas and chemicals leaked out of the Union Carbide pesticide plant on Dec. 3, 1984.
Besides the massive number of dead and injured, residents say the area is still contaminated and the leak is causing birth defects and terrible health problems for those who remain.
Dow says that it had nothing to do with the leak. It only bought Union Carbide in 2001 – more than 16 years after the disaster. It said legal claims were resolved when Union Carbide reached a settlement with the Indian government and paid $470 million as compensation for those killed or injured.
Dow has expressed sadness about the disaster, saying that the “tragic events of 1984 have cast a long shadow over the people of Bhopal and the chemicals industry.”
“Dow has never had any involvement with the Bhopal plant site or with the 1984 Bhopal gas release and efforts by certain interest groups to attach this to the company are misdirected and inappropriate,” spokesman Scot Wheeler of Dow said in an email Friday.
The Michigan company’s vocal critics say that is not enough. They argue the victims of the leak never got proper compensation, and have demanded that Dow make amends. The Indian government is seeking an additional $1.7 billion from Dow in compensation for the victims and their families.
Indian Olympic athletes and Bhopal victims’ groups have urged the London organizers to boot Dow out, saying its continued involvement with the wrap endorses a company that is refusing to clean up the contaminated soil and groundwater in Bhopal. Dow and Union Carbide say the site is now owned by the state of Madhya Pradesh and the state is responsible for the cleanup.
Amnesty International has also condemned the Dow wrap deal, and several British politicians have campaigned to dump Dow from the games.
“What has given real offense to the people of Bhopal is that on this, the most sustainable games ever and lauded as such, that we should wrap the stadium, the big symbol of the games, in a skin that might as well be the skin of the families that died,” said London lawmaker Barry Gardiner.
All of this comes just as Coe, a former gold-medal runner, should be taking a victory lap, with all the Olympic venues completed on schedule and no major scandals ahead of the July 27 to Aug. 12 event.
Instead, his likeness was burned and beaten by hundreds of protesters in the streets of Bhopal on Friday, on the eve of the 27th anniversary of the disaster. The protesters carried banners reading, “Down with London Dowlympics” and “We want justice” – and they planned to stop trains passing through the city Saturday as well.
Coe is being dogged at every public appearance now by questions on the Dow controversy.
His own personal history even comes into play: Coe is the grandson of an Indian. During a recent appearance before the U.K. Parliament’s media, culture and sport committee, he tried, as he has repeatedly, to say that all the rules were followed.
“I am satisfied that the ownership, operation and the involvement either at the time of the disaster or at the final settlement was not the responsibility of Dow,” he said.
Now his Olympic committee is facing a threat that would horrify any event manager. If it doesn’t cut ties with Dow, protesters have vowed to hold their own “Bhopal Olympics” during the London games – an event contested by children with congenital disabilities attributed to the Bhopal gas leak.
Nessman reported from New Delhi. Rafiq Maqbool reported from Bhopal.