NEW YORK (AP) — Protesters in cities around the world targeted major Olympic sponsors Wednesday, just ahead of the Winter Games in Sochi, urging them to speak out against Russia’s law restricting gay-rights activities. Two more sponsors of the U.S. Olympic team condemned the law, but leading global sponsors did not join them.
“”No, no to Russia’s anti-gay law,” chanted several dozen protesters in Paris who gathered in front of a McDonald’s restaurant at the Place de la Republique. The fast-food chain is one of the International Olympic Committee’s 10 top sponsors for the Sochi Games, which open Friday.
Protests also took place in London, Jerusalem, St. Petersburg, Russia, and elsewhere. In all, 20 demonstrations were planned by the advocacy group All Out and its allies.
McDonald’s, like other top IOC sponsors, reiterated that it supports human rights and opposes discrimination, but its statement did not mention the Russian law.
Coca-Cola, another prime target of protests, also didn’t mention the law in its latest statement, though it described itself as a strong supporter of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“We do not condone intolerance or discrimination of any kind anywhere in the world,” Coca-Cola said.
Visa, another IOC top sponsor, issued a similar statement. General Electric, an IOC sponsor since 2005, declined comment.
In contrast to the cautious approach of IOC sponsors, three sponsors of the U.S. Olympic Committee have decided to speak out explicitly against the Russian law.
The first, on Tuesday, was AT&T.
“Russia’s law is harmful to LGBT individuals and families, and it’s harmful to a diverse society,” it said.
Following suit on Wednesday were DeVry University, a for-profit education enterprise, and yogurt-maker Chobani.
“We are against Russia’s anti-LGBT law and support efforts to improve LGBT equality,” said Ernie Gibble, a DeVry spokesman.
“It’s disappointing that in 2014 this is still an issue,” said Chobani’s CEO, Hamdi Ulukaya. “We are against all laws and practices that discriminate in any way, whether it be where you come from or who you love — for that reason, we oppose Russia’s anti-LGBT law.”
AT&T’s move was praised by leading groups in the coalition that has been working for months to pressure sponsors into speaking out.
“AT&T has broken the ice,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives for Human Rights Watch. “Top sponsors of the Olympics like Coke, GE, McDonald’s and Visa are going to have to follow suit — they are very much on the wrong side of history in refusing to use their leverage with the International Olympic Committee to ask for reform and to defend LGBT Russians.”
The Russian law, signed in July by President Vladimir Putin, outlaws pro-gay “propaganda” that could be accessible to minors. Critics say it is so restrictive and vague that it deters almost any public expression of support for gay rights.
Nonetheless, about a dozen Russian activists protested the law Wednesday in St. Petersburg, hundreds of miles north of Sochi. Two unfurled banners reading “Berlin 1936 = Sochi 2014,” referring to the Olympic Games held in Nazi Germany. One-person protests are legal in Russia, and the two activists holding signs were spaced far enough apart that neither was arrested.
In London, about 150 people rallying outside Prime Minister David Cameron’s office urged McDonald’s and the IOC’s other sponsors to speak out.
To date, the IOC and its top sponsors — who pay millions for the rights to use Olympic symbols in television commercials and other marketing — have expressed general opposition to discrimination and pledged to ensure that people gathering for the Sochi Olympics wouldn’t be affected by the law.