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How Sochi Corporate Sponsors Can Promote Gay Equality

06/02/2014 14:45 GMT | Updated 08/04/2014 10:59 BST

With just over a year to go until Russia hosted the Winter Olympics at Sochi, its President, Vladimir Putin opted out of the Charter's prohibition on discrimination. Signing a law banning 'propaganda' about 'nontraditional sexual relations', Putin challenged the key actors in the Olympic movement to insist the Charter is non-negotiable and Russia could not host the Games. The response of the key actors in the Olympic movement has been embarrassingly weak: Russia will go on as host of the Games even as LGBT Russians are treated as second-class citizens.

With outside broadcasters, competitors, and tourists descending on Sochi, LGBT activists are mobilising to show that autocracy, not homosexuality, is the sickness eating away at Russia's body politic. This is the right and proper thing to do. LGBT activists are well-placed to perform another service to equality, though.

Because an Olympics that is inclusive of LGBT competitors spurs more countries to become more inclusive of LGBT people, we have to counteract the effect of holding an Olympics in a country that discriminates against LGBT people. Holding a Games at Sochi will depress the number of positive gay role models who can effect social change. Closeted LGBT competitors might further close down their sexuality, while openly gay competitors might tip into negative thinking spirals that sap their ability to medal and raise their profiles. If Russia's anti-gay attitudes are going to cut the number of positive LGBT role models, the key actors of the Olympic movement have to act now to increase that number in international sports.

Sadly, one key actor in particular sees its role in this respect as limited. Towards the end of last year I gave every one of the nine world-wide corporate partners of the Games the chance to calm the Sochi-related concerns of their customers. Three replied. Their engagement with LGBT concerns varied hugely, from Panasonic's curt refusal to comment, through McDonald's pledge that everybody was welcome under their Golden Arches, to Visa's promise that its sponsorship spurred debate about questionable social attitudes. Whether they replied or not, the outcome was clear: the corporate partners of the Games effectively shrugged their shoulders.

We need to be sensitive to a few things when judging the corporate sponsors. Their involvement in the Olympics is often decades-long, covering multiple Games. With sponsors signing on to multi-Games contracts, they don't get to choose the host nations they'll associate with. Still, it makes good business sense not to act as if you're too big to ignore the needs of your customers, especially when bad press can go from local to global in a tap of a tablet screen. That, and a desire to be on the right side of history, is why the sponsors can help themselves while making positive gay role models by asking LGBT Olympians to be brand ambassadors.

There will be some understandable opposition. Some LGBT Olympians will dislike signing a contract that they got partly because they were gay. And if we're trying to reach the point where a gay person's orientation isn't the top line of their sporting obituary by their retirement, this method, highlighting his or her sexual orientation, might appear an odd way of getting to that point.

Quite simply, however, the cost of inaction is far too high. With fewer openly gay medalists, there will not be an increase in the number of possible gay role models that polling says people ambivalent about LGBT rights need in order to stand with gay people. Inspiring closeted people to come out by showing them successful and prosperous openly gay competitors will be harder. Not only will this state of affairs hurt people's lives and wellbeing today; it will affect the Olympians of the future.

So, one morning after the Games have ended and you've stumbled to the shower, maybe your shampoo bottle will show the face of an LGBT Olympian, somebody who wrapped up training before the sun was in the sky or you were out of bed. And when you polish your teeth and flash your Kennedy smile in the mirror, perhaps it will shine as brightly as the gay medalist's on the toothpaste tube.

Brand advertising helps you smell and look like an Olympian, so you don't have to bother training to become one. It also paints and imagines a world where people know what it feels like to be free. Using their products to imagine a more inclusive world than the one on display at Sochi, the Olympic sponsors can navigate the tensions of maintaining relations with the host nation and meaningfully contributing to the march of equality.