Alan Hubbard: Indian Olympic boycott rumours were nothing but a storm in a teacup

Monday, 28 November 2011
Boycott is probably the most feared word in the Olympic Alan Hubbard_22-11-11lexicon, pipping corruption and drugs to the tape.

Which is why I suspect there were more than few sharp intakes of breath in London and Lausanne when it was  reported by the BBC and subsequently as a front page "Games in crisis" splash by the Independent, that India might opt out of 2012 over Dow Chemical's funding of part of the new Olympic Stadium.

The scare story didn't last long, knocked on the head by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA). There was to be no Indian stay-away. It was all a storm in a cup of Darjeeling.

Phew! Sighs of relief all round. The last thing London needs is a walk-out that would spoil the Stratford parade, particularly by a Commonwealth nation. Though you can be sure it won't be the last "Games in crisis" headline to catch the eye in the coming months.

As the countdown to July 27 2012 quickens it becomes open season for scaremongering. It was ever thus.

Virtually every Olympics in recent history has been dogged by dire warnings of a pending disaster of one sort or another. I recall the late Chris Brasher hand-wringing over Mexico City's high altitude risks in 1968 and declaring: "Someone will die." No-one did.

And no-one will boycott London. Unless we have invaded Iran by then.

In any case, boycotts don't work. They didn't in Moscow in 1980 nor in Los Angeles four years later. Some athletes may miss out on the bandwagon driven by politicians, but the Games show rolls on regardless.

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So what do we make of the so-called "threat" from the sub-continent.

Apparently it stemmed from some political agitation among some past and present athletes – mainly hockey players – who are angered that Dow now own Union Carbide, the company responsible for the Bhopal chemical disaster in the state of Madhya Pradesh which cost many thousands of lives in 1984.

However, the acting president of the IOA, Vijay Kumar Malhotra - former chief Suresh Kalmadi is otherwise engaged fighting corruption charges relating to 2010 Commonwealth Games contracts - has given assurances that there will be a boycott, although, he says, the protests have been noted and will be discussed at their meeting on Monday.

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While a boycott was always unlikely to be endorsed by the IOA the issue was –and surely remains – embarrassing  for London 2012  chief Lord Coe who endorsed the £7 million ($11 million/€8 million) deal for subsidising the "wrap" around the stadium roof and has Indian ancestry through his maternal grandmother.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) have no choice but to back London as they have a highly lucrative sponsorship with Dow themselves. But here the Government are concerned that matter is resolved quickly to avert any diplomatic tiff with India.

As the Sport and Olympics Minister Hugh Robertson points out: "We understand the sensitivity but Dow acquired Union Carbide a decade after the disaster and their products are in daily use all over London."

And in the Olympics. fixtures and fittings courtesy of Dow's deep coffers include elements of the newly-opened Westfield Shopping complex in Stratford and the flooring of the ExCeL Centre, which will stage a fistful of Olympic events, including boxing, taekwondo and weightlifting, and several Paralympic sports.

Which makes it rather odd that hardly a peep has been raised about Dow's involvement until now.

The Dow endowment is certainly an emotive issue, and apparently one about which the Shadow Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell feels strongly enough to suggest that London 2012 – on whose board she sits – should now cancel the deal, arguing the controversy irreparably damages the standing of the Games.  "There is a point when you have to say you cannot take the reputational risk."

It is the first time that Jowell has come close to rocking the 2012 boat in her capacity as the Opposition representative on the London 2012 board. Hitherto she has been unequivocally supportive, both as Olympics Minister in the Labour administration and now in her shadow role.

Indeed, her contribution to London bidding for, and getting the Games, has been immense, and invaluable. Her acquired enthusiasm for the Olympics is contagious, and, unlike some others at Westminster, quite genuine.

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Which is why I seriously doubt that her intervention is politically motivated by her party wanting to make its presence felt more strongly the Olympics scene, or a piece of timely personal muscle-flexing now that Harriet Harman has been installed by Ed Miliband as the governess at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and thus nominally has voice on Olympics matters.

Yet all London 2012 board members must have known of, and surely, approved, the financial arrangements with Dow when it was made.

It would be no surprise if the outcome of the IOA meeting on Monday is a polite formal request from India for London 2012 to reconsider the situation.

In the circumstances, maybe they should, if only as the Dow's contentious adornment to the Stadium arguably is an unnecessary piece of cosmetics anyway. At least that would wrap the whole thing up.

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire.
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