Just months before the the 2014 Winter Olympics begin in Sochi, Russia, a group of prominent investors is calling on Olympic sponsors to take a stand against the Russian anti-gay law that went into effect this year. The Russian government and International Olympic Committee (IOC) have largely ignored international protests against the law, saying that it wouldn’t be applied to Olympic athletes, media, or fans and that participants should respect Russian laws while in the country. Despite calls for action, most of the sponsors have remained silent on the issue.
In a December 3 letter to Olympic sponsors, however, a group of investors led by New York state comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who oversees the $161 billion New York State Common Retirement Fund, called on the sponsors to end their silence, Gay City News reported Thursday. DiNapoli, according to Gay City News, has been urged by state assembly members to divest from Russia in recent months. New York City comptroller John Liu, the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, and multiple faith-based and investment organizations signed the letter. Together, the groups control more than $327 billion in assets.
“As investors, we believe that your company, and publicly traded corporations in general, have an obligation to strive toward responsible and sustainable social policies and practices to protect shareholder value,” the letter says. “This obligation is at the heart of the recently promulgated United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights that proclaims that companies have an affirmative obligation to respect human rights and remedy abuses where they affect their business operations. Respecting diversity and equal rights is also good business.”
The roll of Olympic sponsors includes prominent companies like Coca-Cola, General Electric, McDonalds, Visa, and Dow Chemical. According to the letter, sponsorship accounts for more than 90 percent of the cost of putting on the Games, giving the companies unique power to pressure both the Russian government and the IOC ahead of the opening ceremonies on February 7.
“As sponsorship and broadcast revenues finance over 90% of the costs of the Olympic Games, there can be little doubt that the values of corporate sponsors are important to the International Olympic Committee and host countries,” the letter continues. “We believe strongly that the corporations in which we invest have the opportunity to and should confront the wrongs that result from Russia’s new laws. This is essential to affirm the values of respect and equality that are the historic hallmarks of the Games.”
The letter lays out two basic demands regarding the Olympics, asking the companies to “call on the leaders of the Russian Federation to rescind the laws that deprive members of Russia’s LGBT community of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly” and to “call on the IOC to obtain firm and express commitments from the Russian government that ensure the safety and human rights of all athletes and attendees of the Winter Games and visitors to the Game’s venues.” It also demands that the companies themselves ensure that they have in place strong non-discrimination policies that are enforced around the world, especially in Russia.
In addition to human rights arguments, the letter maintains that promoting equality is good for business, a point that other companies have recognized in the past. Association with Russia’s anti-gay policies, the investors argue, could hurt businesses and thus their shareholders.
“We believe that by taking the above actions you will help protect your company’s brand and reputation, and, consequently, your profits and our investments,” the letter states. “It would indeed be ironic if your corporate sponsorship of the Games, intended to enhance the company’s reputation, instead resulted in reputational or business risk that harms shareholder value.”