PtG Comment 28.07.2010

Oil spill of Olympic dimensions

The disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has left its clear mark on David Cameron's visit to Washington. The biggest oil disaster of our time overshadows the war in Afghanistan and the financial crisis that the two countries are battling with. In the U.S., BP has become a term of abuse like "french fries" was that after France's protest against U.S. warfare in Iraq.

An example of this is the Brevard County Manatees baseball team in Florida who has renamed "batting practice" to "hitting rehearsal" in order to avoid being linked to the abbreviation BP. Florida is one of the places worst affected by the oil spill. But it's not just in baseball and in Florida that BP may be a term of abuse. The oil disaster also has Olympic dimensions.

BP as a sponsor

BP is one of the main sponsors of the U.S. Olympic Committee and the London Olympics in 2012. In addition, BP is heavily involved in American baseball, especially the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox.

BP’s agreement with the London Olympics has an estimated value of 50 million pounds and concerns supplies of fuel and the responsibility for the cultural part of the Olympics which includes education, culture and art exhibitions. And for those who do not know it: the Chicago White Sox is the favorite team of Barack Obama!

BP as a good partner

The head of the London Olympics, running legend Sebastian Coe, has said that he does not have a problem with BP being a contributor to the London Olympics. He is calling BP a valued and trusted partner. IOC president Jacques Rogge also said that he has no problems with BP, as long as they make every effort to clean up the oil spill. The U.S. Olympic Committee argues that the relationship with BP is solid and that they do not plan to reconsider the agreement with the British oil giant.

Money rules, in other words. But for how long?

BP as a starting point

For the Olympic movement, it may be a short-sighted and imprudent decision to dismiss questions about the connection to BP and other oil companies. There are several reasons for this:

The environment issue is about to become everyone's cause, including athletes. Also more and more athletes express concern about the link between BP and sport – especially Americans. They will not be associated with oil spills and global contamination. It's not often that athletes get involved beyond their own diet, rest periods and own achievements, so if this trend continues, the Olympic movement will experience a political commitment from their own ranks that they have not experienced before.

If this happens, the IOC will face a dilemma. Prior to, during and after the Olympic Games in Beijing, the IOC highlighted the environmental efforts in Beijing. And to give the devil his due – the Olympics did lead with it a cleaner Beijing and a new awareness of air pollution in China, although it also had human costs.

Also, the IOC has for a long time said that they will be tough on those who promote political views during the Games – which was clearly seen during the Games in Beijing. But it's not as easy to crack down on environmental commitment as the protests against a single country or an area which can be interpreted in many ways.

The environmental battle has a different approach than for example the struggle for human rights. The struggle for a better environment is also a question of human rights, but concerns collective rights, while, say, the struggle for freedom of speech is a battle for individual rights. It is therefore easier to get more people to join the fight against environmental pollution and thus more difficult to stop.

So as long as the IOC would like to be environmentally friendly – and that's certainly what they say themselves – it is going to be difficult to crack down on those who wish to follow up on this commitment – also in the Olympic arena.

The London Olympics could become a test venue to see if the environmental cause will become the new political issue in the Olympics. This is an issue everyone can engage in and since Britain cannot, as China, be criticized for violating human rights, the activists will find other things to fight for in London.

Through conversations with different organisations regarding the Beijing Olympics it appears that the strategy to influence the Chinese government failed. The lesson for these organisations is that they will be tougher with the IOC, the National Olympic Committees and sponsors in order to influence the host nation's politics and in order to promote their own views. The BP case therefore presents a special dilemma to Sebastian Coe and his colleagues.

This article first appeared on Andreas Selliaas' blog 'Sportens Uutholdelige Letthet' on July 21 2010. Follow Andreas' blog (in Norwegian) on