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The Olympic branding game

John Hilary looks at the corporate commercial bonanza provided by sponsorship opportunities for London 2012

April 16, 2012
9 min read

John HilaryJohn Hilary is executive director of War on Want.

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Photo: Shawn Carpenter

The London 2012 Olympics are upon us. Already our media and public spaces are filling up with images of Olympian and Paralympian athletes striving to attain sporting greatness. The London organising committee (LOCOG) has publicly embraced the Olympic principles of social responsibility and fair play, promising us an ethical Games whose ‘lasting legacy’ will be lived out for years to come.

In reality, any public benefit from the Olympics will come in a distant second to private profit. Today’s Games have degenerated into a multi-billion dollar scramble by multinational corporations to associate their brands with the Olympic spirit, and companies are prepared to pay handsomely for the privilege. No other sporting event offers such a positive image of capitalist enterprise in the service of a higher cause.

Exclusive monopoly rights are an essential part of the sponsorship deals signed with Olympic partners. Visa will be the only credit card accepted at any Olympic venue, just as it was for those trying to buy tickets for the Games last year. McDonald’s will be the only branded food that can be sold at the events and Coca-Cola the only drinks provider. Logos and adverts for competing brands will be covered up to avoid ‘contamination’ during the Games.

This privatisation of the spoils goes hand in hand with the exclusion of local communities. Businesses face prosecution if they use Olympics branding in their own commercial activities, and residents of the Lower Lea Valley will enjoy few real benefits from the legacy of the Games.

This mirrors the experience of other sporting events around the world. Local South African traders were barred from the 2010 FIFA World Cup, just as the favelas of Rio de Janeiro are already being cleared in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.

For multinational sportswear companies, the Olympics represent an unparallelled marketing opportunity before a global TV audience of four billion spectators. Adidas has spent around £100 million to be the official sportswear partner of the London Olympics and sponsor of Team GB, in an attempt to overtake Nike as the number one sportswear brand in the UK.

For its part, Nike is sponsoring the US national team and top athletes Mo Farah, Paula Radcliffe and Mark Cavendish, while Puma’s logo is emblazoned across the chest of the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt.

Yet these same companies are failing to play fair with the people who make their goods. According to War on Want’s new research, several factories producing sportswear for Adidas, Nike and Puma in Bangladesh do not even pay their workers the legal minimum wage, let alone a living wage that would allow them to meet their basic needs.

These findings echo the PlayFair campaign’s revelation that the official Wenlock and Mandeville toy mascots currently on sale in shops around Britain have been made in China using sweated labour. Embarrassingly for LOCOG, the PlayFair research uncovered breaches of every single one of the nine agreed standards for London 2012 merchandise.

The records of many of the other multinational corporations involved in the London Olympics have caused similar outrage (see next pages). No companies should be allowed to wrap themselves in the Olympic flag when they have been guilty of human rights violations or environmental damage in their operations. London 2012 is our opportunity to expose the commercialisation of the Olympics and reclaim the Games from monopoly capitalism. Now that would be a legacy worth celebrating.

The new War on Want report Race to the Bottom: Olympic sportswear companies’ exploitation of Bangladeshi workers is available at

Lords of the rings

Murray Worthy reveals some of the dirty secrets of the 2012 Olympics corporate sponsors

Adidas is the official sportswear partner of London 2012, with sole rights to produce clothing featuring the prestigious Olympic logo. In return for its investment, the company aims to overtake Nike to become the UK’s sportswear market leader. Away from the Olympic spotlight, the workers making goods for Adidas experience poverty pay, abuse and exploitation. In factories supplying Adidas in Bangladesh, workers earn as little as 9p an hour and are required to work more than 60 hours a week – with overtime that is often unpaid. This abuse of basic labour rights is wholly contrary to the Olympic ideals of social responsibility and human dignity. Race to the Bottom

ATOS is the French IT firm responsible for carrying out the British government’s ‘work capability assessment’. Tens of thousands of sick and disabled people have been forced into poverty after being stripped of essential benefits. Despite the process being dubbed unfit for purpose, and an increasing number of suicides due to the vicious health testing regime, this form of assessment is to be extended to everyone on some form of disability benefit. When not bullying disabled people, ATOS is the official IT partner of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games – championing its support for disabled athletes with one hand while destroying the lives of disabled and sick benefit claimants with the other. Disabled People Against Cuts

Incredibly, BP is the official sustainability partner, oil and gas partner and carbon offset partner of London 2012. This allows the company to promote discredited biofuels and carbon offsets as solutions to climate change, sidelining genuine long-term sustainable solutions such as moving off fossil fuels or reducing consumption. And despite high profile claims about its use of biofuels for the 5,000 Olympic vehicles, 99 per cent of the fleet will rely on conventional fuel. This is not forgetting that BP is the company behind the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, tar sands extraction in Alberta and a £7.5 billion deal to exploit oil in the Russian Arctic. It was previously very good friends with the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the Gaddafi regime in Libya. UK Tar Sands Network

BT, the official communications partner of London 2012, stands accused of complicity in Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people. BT has welcomed Israeli telecoms company Bezeq into its exclusive BT Alliance programme, despite the fact that Bezeq provides the telecoms infrastructure for Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. BT’s own business principles include specific commitments to uphold human rights, yet it has refused to acknowledge that there is a problem in its relationship with Bezeq. Human rights campaigners are calling on BT to hang up on the occupation and disconnect from Bezeq. Hang Up on the Occupation

Coca-Cola has sponsored the Olympics since 1928, making it the longest continuous supporter of the Games. The company says that it shares the Olympic Movement’s vision and is committed to promoting ‘active, healthy lifestyles’ for all. Yet Coca-Cola has become the target of a mass campaign in India for destroying livelihoods and communities by exhausting water resources and contaminating local ecosystems with effluent. Coca-Cola has been implicated in human rights abuses in Colombia, where trade unions allege that the company’s bottlers used illegal paramilitaries to attack and kill worker activists, and has a long history of union-busting in a wide range of other countries. India Resource Centre

On 2 December 1984, a Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India, leaked 27 tons of deadly gas. Half a million people were exposed to it and an estimated 25,000 have died as a result. A further 150,000 victims are believed to be chronically ill and around 50,000 unable to work. Dow bought Union Carbide in 2001 but has since refused to accept liability for supporting victims or for cleaning up the toxic contamination at the Bhopal site. Union Carbide’s former CEO has even been declared a fugitive from justice by the Indian courts. Despite this, London 2012 selected Dow to provide a giant plastic wrap around the Olympic stadium. This led to threats of a boycott of the Games by the Indian government and prompted the resignation of a member of the Olympics sustainability commission, who said she believed that the organisers had become apologists for Dow. Bhopal Medical Appeal

G4S is the world’s largest private security company and official security services provider to London 2012. While it claims to provide ‘security solutions’ for ‘complex environments’, the company in fact contributes to increasing human insecurity around the world. G4S is the parent company of the British private military company, ArmorGroup. It has been criticised by the US senate for hiring Afghan warlords to provide security, one of whom was alleged to have close ties with the Taliban. Closer to home, G4S security operates four UK prisons and three immigration detention centres and has been implicated in various human rights abuses. Perhaps the most infamous case is the death of Jimmy Mubenga. In a deportation flight to Angola in October 2010, he was heavily restrained and handcuffed by three G4S guards. After collapsing in custody, he was later pronounced dead in hospital. National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns

Rio Tinto won the contract to provide the metal for the near 5,000 gold, silver and bronze medals at London 2012, claiming a passionate commitment to sustainable development. The reality falls far from the rhetoric. In Utah, USA, where most of the metals will be mined, Rio Tinto is accused of being responsible for more than 30 per cent of particulate air pollution, mainly made up of heavy metals, leading to 150 premature deaths each year. Meanwhile, in Mongolia, where the remainder of the metals will be mined, Rio Tinto refuses to recognise nomadic herders as indigenous to the area, and has depleted water resources in the already water-scarce Gobi desert. London Mining Network

These two articles are also available as a printed leaflet. For free copies for your union branch, campaign group or just to hand out yourself, email your address to

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John HilaryJohn Hilary is executive director of War on Want.

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