Olympic Torch Debate Flares at Coke Meeting

Shareholders Lash Out Over Company's Sponsorship of Summer Games

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Trying to tamp down heated accusations, Coca-Cola CEO Neville Isdell played defense at the company's annual meeting as vocal shareholders attacked the beverage giant's Olympics stance.
Shareholders attacked the Coca-Cola on its sponsorship of the Olympic torch relay, with two demanding that the company tell the International Olympic Committee to change the route so that it will not pass through Tibet.
Shareholders attacked the Coca-Cola on its sponsorship of the Olympic torch relay, with two demanding that the company tell the International Olympic Committee to change the route so that it will not pass through Tibet. Credit: AP

Mr. Isdell repeatedly called for order at the meeting, held today in Wilmington, Del., amid a series of outbursts and disruptions. At the start of the proceedings, shareholders were told they would be limited to two minutes for questions. But most breezed by the tone signaling their time was up as they attacked the company on its sponsorship of both the torch relay and its overall involvement as sponsor of this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing.

Two shareholders demanded that the company tell the International Olympic Committee to change the route the torch is traveling, so that it will not pass through Tibet. Those shareholders said that if the torch relay is allowed to pass through, it will cause a loss of life.

Warning of bloodshed
"We're not asking Coke to solve Tibet's problems. We're not asking you to make a political stand. ... We're not calling for the torch to be stopped, we're saying it should not go to Tibet right now. ... It will bring about bloodshed," one shareholder said. "Taking the torch to Tibet right now is the height of irresponsibility. You'll have blood on your hands."

Mr. Isdell responded by noting that the IOC does not have control over the torch route. "Still, I believe it's a torch of hope," he said. "I don't think stopping the torch run is the right thing to do in the long run."

A representative of Amnesty International also called on the company to wield its power as a major sponsor to improve human rights in China. "China is using this Olympics as an excuse to go after peaceful opponents and dissidents," that representative said. At that point, Mr. Isdell responded by saying simply, "We are not a political organization."

Reporters Without Borders also took the opportunity to urge Coca-Cola to sign a "declaration of responsibility" that proposes that Olympic sponsors favor freedom in China, and create a fund to support families of political prisoners.

Loaded question
"Don't you think that repression in China and Tibet is in danger of harming the Coca-Cola brand around the world?" asked Lucie Morillon, a representative of the group. "If you do nothing in support of rights and freedoms, Reporters Without Borders will consider the possibility of asking consumers to protest."

One shareholder who said he was unable to participate in the Olympics as a result of the 1984 boycott thanked Coca-Cola for its continued support of the games, in the face of public outcries. "[The Olympics] bring joy and hope to millions," he said. "If that's not corporate responsibility to bring hope to people, I don't know what is."
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