Legendary Canadian gold medal champions are scolding Olympic organizers and sponsor General Motors for freezing an athlete-driven charity out of the Vancouver Games.
Right To Play, which teaches life skills through sports to children in poor and war-torn countries, has been banished by the Vancouver Organizing Committee for taking sponsorship from GM's auto industry rival, Mitsubishi.
Daniel Igali, a 2000 Olympic wrestling gold medalist, says he understands a major sponsor like GM needs to protect its interests. But he argues the move could severely damage a humanitarian organization founded by Olympic athletes.
"GM needs to take on a big brother role in this issue and come to a resolution that would not permanently endanger the activities of Right To Play," he said from his home in Nigeria.
Mr. Igali is back in his homeland trying to build peace by using sports and education to veer young rebels away from war. In 2007, he was beaten and robbed in the effort.
His current project is through his own foundation, but he learned his activism through Right To Play. "It would be really sad to see an athlete-centred organization borne out of the Olympic movement ostracized from the Olympic family," he said.
Clara Hughes gave the organization her $10,000 prize for her gold medal in speed skating in 2006. Her generosity sparked a $500,000 flood of donations.
"I'm baffled by this [sponsorship conflict]," Ms. Hughes said in an interview from Calgary. "I understand business, I understand protecting your brand, but it's never been an issue in the past."
The source of the conflict is two sponsorship deals. General Motors of Canada has an exclusive $67-million sponsorship with VANOC, while Right To Play recently signed a $480,000 deal with Mitsubishi Motor Sales.
Right To Play executives say they didn't intend to promote Mitsubishi in the Olympic village but the group's Canadian homepage does feature a prominent photo of a Mitsubishi executive presenting RTP CEO Johann Koss a giant cardboard cheque.
Dave Cobb, the Vancouver organizing committee's executive vice-president for revenue, marketing and communications, said: "They [RTP] chose to sign those deals, knowing what the impact of their decision would be ... and quite frankly, we think they made the right decision, in the best interests of their organization."
Olympic sponsorship arrangements contribute as much as a billion dollars toward the cost of the 2010 Games and "cannot be put at risk," Mr. Cobb said.
Mr. Cobb said the matter wasn't an issue in Beijing and previous Olympics because Right to Play had not entered into any large sponsorships.
Mr. Koss, the former Norwegian Olympic speed-skating legend, says Games organizers have tolerated Right To Play's outside sponsors since they first started setting up in the athlete's village in Sydney in 2000.
But he said VANOC has made it "much tougher," basically demanding the group renounce any sponsorship outside the Olympic umbrella.
Mr. Koss said Mitsubishi offered to withdraw from the relationship with Right To Play when the trouble with VANOC started.
"Mitsubishi was an amazing support to us, but that wasn't enough," Mr. Koss said.
"VANOC said you cannot associate with any type of corporate sponsorship other than Olympic sponsors."
But Mr. Koss is hopeful the disagreement is just "a bump in the road" and that an arrangement can be reached for future games. For Vancouver, they will set up shop outside official Olympic grounds and hope to reach some 10,000 athletes that way.
Based in Toronto and backed by a roster of high-profile current and former athletes from Adam van Koeverden to Wayne Gretzky, Right To Play runs programs in 23 countries touching some 600,000 children.
GM spokesman Stew Low said Olympic organizers have to protect the value of sponsorships from so-called guerrilla marketing, where non-official sponsors get the benefit of an indirect link to the Olympics.
"It's not our decision to fix," Mr. Low maintained. "VANOC are the ones who make the final call."
This is shameful.
Right To Play is more than a charity; it does more than dole out money. It works with community organizers to establish home-grown systems, so that when RTP leaves, the work continues.
It uses uniquely designed sports programs to fight not only poverty and violence but their roots and causes. It helps kids and adults in war-torn countries heal from the violence.
I learned about RTP during the 2006 winter Olympics, but I learned much more while interviewing Canadian gold medalist Chantal Petitclerc. She is a Right To Play "athlete ambassador", and now that she has retired from track, she wants to get more deeply involved. When she was invited to join, she researched the organization and came away deeply impressed.
The decision to ban RTP because of sponsorship exclusivity starkly illuminates VANOC's priorities. VANOC cares more about corporate sponsorship than about the support for humanitarian work that their Games could generate.