08/22/2012 12:54 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2012

Human Rights Violations Cast a Dark Shadow Over the London Olympics

Over the past few weeks, like millions across the globe, I frequently found myself glued to the television, captivated by the Olympic Games in London. The athletic feats -- and of course, the inspirational stories of the athletes -- kept me watching night after night. The media loves a good back story, especially when it's about U.S. gold medal athletes. Think Jesse Owens winning gold medals as Hitler looked on; or the American hockey team's Miracle on Ice at the height of the Cold War; or Gabby Douglas, whose family overcame bankruptcy threats. The stories behind gold medal triumphs are always front and center on the Olympic stage, celebrating hard work, dedication, and courage, and inspiring millions. But this year, there's a different gold medal tale that has gone untold.

It's the dirty story of Rio Tinto, the mining company that provided all of the medals, and their alleged complicity in the deaths of up to 15,000 people on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. Rio Tinto has been sued in U.S. court for these and other brutal human rights abuses in connection with their gold mining in PNG. The case awaits the outcome of another case, Kiobel v. Shell, which will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in October.

During the first half of the London Olympics, while we watched the world's greatest athletes competing for a Rio Tinto medal, the company's lawyers were hard at work writing a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, urging the justices to let Shell off the hook for its involvement in human rights abuses in Nigeria, including torture, crimes against humanity, and the execution of nine environmentalists. If the Supreme Court agrees with Rio Tinto and Shell, human rights lawsuits against corporations will no longer be possible. As I cheered when my favorite teams and athletes won gold, I must admit that I wasn't thinking of Rio Tinto or any of the corporations accused of similar human rights abuses. But by the time closing ceremonies came around last week, I was angry -- angry that the gold medals worn by the worlds' best athletes were tainted irreparably by the company that supplied them.

It gets worse, though, because Rio Tinto isn't alone. In an avalanche of Supreme Court briefs from corporations and trade organizations, all siding with corporate profits over human rights, you will find the names of five more Olympic sponsors: Dow, GlaxoSmithKline, BP, General Electric, and Proctor & Gamble. These same companies that splashed their logos all over the Games, marketing peace and human achievement, were at the same time fighting to destroy access to justice for human rights survivors. The same is true for the Olympics host, the UK government, which also wrote a brief urging the Supreme Court to let Shell, one of its most profitable companies, off the hook.

The Olympic Games have always inspired us with stories of ordinary people overcoming great odds to achieve extraordinary things. During these Games, however, corporate lawyers were busy crafting extraordinary legal arguments that would allow the Rio Tintos and Shells of the world to commit human rights abuses with impunity. It's a different kind of hard work and dedication, and it's not nearly as inspiring.