(Updates with sponsor comments in 13th paragraph.)
Feb. 7 (Bloomberg) -- Google Inc. joined protests against antigay legislation in Russia on the opening day of the Sochi Winter Olympics as President Vladimir Putin urged “less aggression” on both sides of the issue.
A Google Doodle posted on its home page depicted athletes in Olympic sports such as ice hockey, bobsled and snowboarding, in the rainbow colors, used to represent gay pride. Underneath, the world’s largest search engine quoted the Olympic Charter saying that every individual “must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind.”
As Putin uses the Winter Games to showcase the world’s eighth-biggest economy, multinational companies are caught between their business interests in Russia and pressure from customers and activists to publicly oppose the law. McDonald’s Corp. and Coca-Cola Co. have refused to stop backing the Olympics, while Google and AT&T Inc., which aren’t among the top sponsors, are speaking out more openly.
Putin told reporters in Sochi today that “the less aggression there will be around these issues from both sides, the better it will be,” saying he supports a plea from a member of the gay community in the host city to “leave us alone.”
Russian Sports Minister Vitaliy Mutko said in August that athletes and spectators attending the Games, which last until Feb. 23, will face arrest, fines and deportation if they violate the law. The delegation of U.S. dignitaries to the Sochi Games will include several gay members in a slap at the legislation, which bars public expressions of support for homosexuality. Russian officials say the regulation is intended to protect children.
Campaigners in Russia say that the law is so vague that it could apply to any open display of homosexuality and that it encourages discrimination-based violence.
McDonald’s is one of 10 main sponsors of the Olympics along with Coca-Cola, the world’s largest beverage company, and Procter & Gamble Co., the biggest consumer-products maker. All have faced protests in the U.S. over their involvement with the Sochi games.
Gerhard Heiberg, head of marketing for the International Olympic Committee, said in September he was being “pushed” by several sponsors who were worried about the likelihood of protests during the event.
All Out, a gay-rights group based in New York, on Feb. 5 organized global rallies outside locations of McDonald’s, the world’s largest restaurant chain.
AT&T, the second-largest U.S. wireless carrier, took a stand against the Russian ban on homosexual “propaganda” to minors earlier this week. The U.K’s Channel 4 television network produced a video of a shirtless man dancing in front of flashing rainbow-colored lights while wishing all athletes at the games good luck.
No corporate sponsor has issued a public statement asking Russia to repeal the law, Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch’s European and Central Asian director, said in a Feb. 5 e-mail.
“What you’re seeing is a little bit of a conflict within the internal culture of these companies,” Andre Banks, All Out’s executive director, said this week in an interview. “Right now, the people who are concerned about the bottom line and being more conservative are winning the debate.”
Coca-Cola has said it won’t withdraw sponsorship to avoid undermining gay athletes who’ve spent years preparing for the competition.
“As one of the world’s most inclusive brands, we value and celebrate diversity,” Ann Moore, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola, said in an e-mail. “We have long been a strong supporter of the LGBT community,” she said, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
McDonald’s acknowledged that activists are putting pressure on Olympic sponsors. “McDonald’s supports human rights, the spirit of the Olympics and all the athletes who’ve worked so hard to compete in the Games,” Becca Hary, a spokeswoman for McDonald’s, said in an e-mail.
Jeannie Tharrington, a spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble’s Olympic sponsorship team, didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
Four gay-rights protesters were detained today in St. Petersburg after taking photos of themselves next to a banner referring to Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter, which bans discrimination, said Polina Andrianova, an activist who said she was present. Three to four police cars arrived a few minutes after the act and took them away, she said by Skype. Police in St. Petersburg didn’t pick up the phone when called by Bloomberg News at the end of the working day.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who met Putin hours before the Olympics opening ceremonies in the Black Sea resort, said he had discussed sexual minorities’ rights with the Russian leader.
The Peter Tatchell Foundation, a London-based human rights organization, has requested that the Lausanne, Switzerland-based IOC ask Russian officials to lift a ban on a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Pride House at the games.
“It is very disturbing that the IOC has not sought to overturn the ban on Pride House, despite being urged to do so way back in 2012 when the Russians announced that it would not be permitted,” foundation director Peter Tatchell said today in an open letter to IOC President Thomas Bach. “I hope that even at this late stage the IOC will take action to uphold Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter, which prohibits discrimination.”
Google, co-founded by Russian-born Sergey Brin, drew praise from gay-rights groups for its message today.
“Google has once again proven itself to be a true corporate leader for equality,” Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said in a statement. “Now it’s time for each and every remaining Olympic sponsor to follow their lead.”
--With assistance from Christopher Spillane in Johannesburg and Gerrit De Vynck in Toronto. Editors: Crayton Harrison, Stephen West