India may boycott Olympics in Bhopal protest

A boycott threat could be hanging over the London 2012 Olympics.

There are growing fears of a possible pull-out by Indian athletes in protest at London 2012’s sponsorship deal with Dow Chemical Company and the firm’s connection to the 1984 Bhopal disaster – one of the world’s worst industrial incidents.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it would oppose a boycott amid reports that Indian athletes have called on the Indian Olympic Association to pull out of the Games. Suggestions of a boycott were not accurate, the IOC said.

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Bhopal is capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh, whose chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan has asked sports minister Ajay Maken to boycott the Olympics.

In a letter, he said it was not appropriate for a company linked to such a tragedy to be allowed to sponsor an event “considered as an ultimate expression of fair play, honesty and healthy endeavour”.

Concerns have also been raised by 21 Indian Olympic athletes who earlier this month urged London 2012 to end Dow’s sponsorship of a curtain-style wrap of the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, east London.

An IOC spokesman said: “We understand from the (Indian) National Olympic Committee that they would of course be willing to discuss any concerns with their athletes. However, reports of a boycott of the Games are not accurate.

“The IOC would of course oppose a boycott, as ultimately the only people hurt by actions like these would be the athletes themselves.”

Up to 15,000 people died and tens of thousands were maimed when poisonous gas leaked from the Union Carbide India factory in Bhopal in central India in 1984. Dow bought Union Carbide in 2001 but denies responsibility for Bhopal liabilities.

The IOC said it recognised the Bhopal disaster as a “very tragic event” but added: “The IOC understands that Dow never owned or operated the facility in Bhopal, and that the State Government of Madhya Pradesh owns and controls the former plant site.”

In defence of Dow, the IOC noted: “Dow is a global leader in its field of business and is committed to good corporate citizenship.

“The company has supported the Olympic Movement for over 30 years, providing financial support and bringing industry-leading expertise and innovation to the Games.”

Dow, a global Olympic sponsor since 2010, stepped in to fund the fabric wrap for the 2012 Olympic Stadium which was ditched to save £7m.

Dow has always maintained it did not own or operate the Bhopal plant and that legal claims regarding the gas leak were resolved when Union Carbide paid £303m in compensation for those killed or injured. The Indian government is seeking an additional £1.1bn for the victims.

Five Bhopal victims’ rights groups have also demanded the scrapping of the sponsorship deal, saying it would give undue publicity to a company that was refusing to clean up toxic contamination.

Britain’s former Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell described a move towards a boycott as “a very significant step to take for the Indian Olympic Association on behalf of their athletes”.

She said: “It is a reminder to the world, nearly 27 years after the disaster in Bhopal, of the continuing outrage in India at the apparent indifference towards the suffering Union Carbide has caused.”

The Shadow Olympics Minister and Labour MP has asked for meetings with the Indian Olympic Association and the Indian sports minister during her visit to the country next week.

The Labour Friends of India group and a cross-party coalition of MPs have launched a campaign urging London 2012 to review the Dow deal for the stadium wrap.

A London 2012 spokesman said: “We have had absolutely no indication from the Indian NOC that there are any plans or discussions to boycott London 2012”.