London 2012's Boycott Moment

What the Dow wrap tells us about the London Olympic Games’s approach to sustainable development
Graeme Hayes
16 December 2011

What should we make of the current furore over India’s participation in the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games?

LOCOG – The London Games Organising Committee – agreed this summer a £7 million deal with Dow Chemical to provide a decorative polyester and polyethylene ‘wrap’ for the Olympic stadium.


Dow Chemical company to produce London Olympic wrap

In India, this has caused an outcry amongst politicians and campaign groups. Dow now owns Union Carbide, responsible for the 1984 Bhopal toxic gas disaster, and is involved in ongoing disputes over toxic clean-up and the extent of financial compensation to the victims. Dow refuses liability for further claims relating to the disaster, which has killed at least 20,000 people, injured hundreds of thousands more, and has left a long term legacy of human and environmental health problems, of birth defects and cancers.
 Dow is, since last year, a core Olympic sponsor, the IOC’s ‘official chemistry company’. But the wrap deal is a separate agreement – and one which, according to Amnesty International, gives Dow a visibility and legitimacy which is “untenable in the face of its continuing failure to address one of the worse corporate related human rights disasters of the 20th century”, whilst it “risks delegitimizing the long standing calls of Bhopal survivors and other human rights groups for corporate accountability and redress for human rights abuses”.
In the light of the deal, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the Chief Minister of the state of Madhya Pradesh, where Bhopal is located, has urged an official Indian boycott of the Games. This seemed unlikely, once the acting president of the Indian Olympic Association, Vijay Kumar Malhotra Malhotra reportedly ruled out a boycott. But over the last week, there has been a hardening of India’s stance: the Indian government has now asked the IOA to write to LOCOG to request Dow be dropped as a London 2012 sponsor. A boycott remains on the agenda.



For once, LOCOG has lost its grip over the control of the course of events, and seems in shock. After all, the Dow deal is good business. The time of boycotts, which so ravaged the Olympic movement in the 1970s and 1980s, was meant to be over. The Games are now supposed to be about human rights, about global citizenship, and, since the Los Angeles Games, stimulating corporate investment, creating new markets, generating wealth.
The Dow dispute looks like a potent clash of the old Games – the Games of politics and nations – with the new Games of markets and rights. But the dispute also tells us more about another aspect of the Games that London is promising us. LOCOG arrived at the agreement with Dow because, in its own procurement terms, what Dow was offering was unimpeachably ‘sustainable’. How is it possible that LOCOG got the public mood so wrong? What does it tell us about what sustainability means to the London Games?
From the start, London 2012 made two bold promises: that it would place environmental sustainability at the heart of the design and organisation of the Games, so that, in the words of Sir David Higgins, then CEO of the Olympic Development Authority, it would be “remembered not only as two weeks of fantastic sporting action, but also as the ‘Greenest Games’ in modern times”.
It also promised that sustainability would be taken to be “fundamentally about people and how we live; it is not simply a technical discipline”. (For LOCOG’s head of sustainability David Stubbs, answering questions in a live Guardian webchat earlier this year, “our story is very much about people and the choices we have made to influence wider change”.
Sustainability is, of course, a slippery concept, which is why politicians, private enterprises, and event organisers like it so much. But London made a commitment, and on the first of its promises it has done pretty well: its carbon accounting methodology, for example, deserves to be taken seriously.
The second promise, however, is harder to keep. It’s all very well to say that the Olympics will be “about people and how we live” but what does this mean, in sustainability terms? In the case of the Dow wrap, it’s clear that sustainability is fundamentally about three things: about money, about materials, and about reputation.
Money, because the ongoing systemic crisis of neo-liberalism has called for savings even here, and the Dow sponsorship deal – “a small procurement” according to LOCOG CEO Paul Deighton, answering questions before a House of Commons select committee last week (the uncorrected record is available here) is a neat piece of business designed to plug the gap caused by the withdrawal of the public funding originally set aside for the stadium fabric.
Materials, because sustainable sourcing turns out here essentially to mean, as Lord Coe put it before the select committee, that “the material they are using is entirely recyclable”, whilst the wrap is promised to have a lower carbon footprint than conventional plastics. The fact that the IOC even has a ‘chemicals partner’, amongst the usual transnational corporation suspects — airlines, fast food, beer, sportswear, financial services — shows how important this has become to Olympic image-making.
And reputation, because this is London 2012’s basic worst nightmare: not just a boycott, not just the loss of a huge media market, but an indelible stain on London’s claims to global environmental leadership.
In other words, what sustainability turns out not to be about after all is ‘people’, at least in any sense which sees them as something other than consumers or spectators or supporters. LOCOG speaks the language of social and ethnic representation, and does it well, endlessly measuring and encouraging and enabling in turn. But what it doesn’t speak is the language of participation as active citizenship, of democratic participation in decision-making.
This isn’t new: after all, volunteer training has been contracted to McDonald’s, showing that when it comes down to it, volunteering is about efficient service delivery, corporate branding, and Olympic sponsorship rights – when it could have been about so much more.
And to be fair, how could it? LOCOG has an event to organise, and for London’s reputation as for the watching billions it is important that, above all, nothing goes wrong. This is a top-down process – and there’s the rub.
One might see the Dow dispute as a sideshow: Olympics have direct, material, spatial impacts, on local populations as on the environment. London 2012 conceives of sustainable development within this framework: costs are measured against benefits, impacts are remediated by developing best practice in processes and technology. Recycling is important, as is the development of sustainable materials.
But the Dow dispute shows us how this conception of sustainable development is the product of a depoliticised, managerial, growth-oriented mindset. Even whilst it is fighting political battles with suppliers and departments to improve practices, London 2012 has effectively become the victim of its attempts to evacuate politics from what are fundamentally political choices.
The threat of a boycott is the moment when nations and place come into conflict with capital and flows, and where people – with their histories, their memories, and their collective values – remind us that sustainability isn’t just about technical standards and targets: it is about how we live and build a society together. It is therefore about ideas, it is about conflict, and it is about the past as well as the future.
If LOCOG is in difficulty now, it's because it has failed to understand that sustainable development is not simply about delivery. In Bhopal, it's about justice.

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