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Coca-Cola Drops the Ball on Gay Rights at Sochi


Although activists will target other companies too, many hoped Coca-Cola would lead the way with a strong statement against Russia's new laws.

T-minus 99 days until the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia; and the countdown -- and the pressure -- is now focused on American brands.

Gay rights group AllOut showed up at Coca-Cola's (NYSE:KO) headquarters in Atlanta on Monday in an effort to urge the longtime Olympic sponsor to demand a repeal of an anti-gay law at the Sochi Games. Put on the books this summer by the Russian parliament and tacitly endorsed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the laws can impose thousands of dollars in fines and even imprisonment on any citizen, visitor, or athlete who expresses gay-affirmative views at the Games.

Billboards reading "Coca-Cola," "Don't Stay Bottled Up," and "Speak Out Against Russia's Anti-Gay Laws" were splashed across trucks that passed through the company's campus while individual protesters picketed across the street from the main gates.

Together, with human rights organization SumOfUs, AllOut was also armed with petitions bearing a half million signatures calling on the soft drink giant to publicly condemn the law.

But Coca-Cola doesn't seem willing to go that distance. Despite reports of meetings among top executives about whether or not to take decisive action -- and consequently the postponement of those meetings -- it appears the company has merely decided to maintain the status quo.

Coca-Cola's official position, posted on the corporate website, is one of boilerplate platitudes that doesn't agree with sanctioned injustice, but stops short of condemning it:
As one of the world's most inclusive brands, we value and celebrate diversity. We have long been a strong supporter of the LGBT community and have advocated for inclusion and diversity through both our policies and practices. We do not condone intolerance or discrimination of any kind anywhere in the world.

Of course, Coca-Cola isn't the only game in Sochi. Also underwriting the Olympics are mega corporations McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) and Visa (NYSE:V). Comcast-owned (NASDAQ:CMCSA) NBC is paying $775 million to broadcast the Games while its journalists will be either muzzled on the highly relevant topic of homosexuality or face the criminal consequences for reporting news.

Activists may indeed decide to petition other sponsors of the Olympic Games. "We have focused on Coke because they have a clear timetable in which they will make a decision over whether to make a public statement condemning the Russian law," says SumOfUs' Martin Caldwell. "If Coke made that choice it would have a huge impact on other companies and on the IOC and Russian government. It doesn't mean we won't target other companies…."

Meanwhile, a sudden and suspect message of tolerance came from Vladimir Putin on Monday. The Russian president, who has stood by the law, now appears to be doing some late-game damage control. During an inspection of the venues at Sochi, he told the head of the IOC that Russia will "do its best to make sure that participants and guests of the Sochi Games feel comfortable irrespective of their nationality, race, or sexual orientation."

As it stands, the federal law -- written in anticipation of the Winter Games -- is still very much in black and white, with Russia's sports minister assuring its enforcement.

Putin has a lot riding on Sochi. Far more than celebrating athleticism, his country's $50 million investment in the Games will cast a worldwide spotlight on a modernized Russia largely unseen since its break from the Soviet Union and Communist rule.

Ironically, it's civil rights that truly make a country advanced, and they don't cost a thing.

Until the law is officially struck from the record, any kind of enlightened-sounding speech is just lip service -- whether it's coming from a president, or a corporation.
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