07/26/2012 03:05 EDT | Updated 09/24/2012 05:12 EDT

Victims of Bhopal gas leak hold protest Olympics to shame London Games sponsor Dow

BHOPAL, India - Dozens of giggling children in wheelchairs or limping on twisted limbs raced for gold Thursday in their own "Special Olympics" organized in an effort to shame London Games sponsor Dow Chemical Co. over the deadly 1984 Bhopal gas leak.

Cheered on by parents and activists, the children — teenagers and kids as young as 5 who have birth defects blamed on their parents' exposure to the gas — struggled across distances they normally would not attempt in spirited competition. One little boy ran laps back and forth on the patchy field even when no race was on.

Survivors say Dow owes them compensation for the world's worst industrial disaster and have campaigned to have the chemical giant dropped as a sponsor of the Olympics. Dow says it has no liability because it bought the company responsible for the plant more than a decade after the cases had been settled.

All sides acknowledge that what took place on the morning of Dec. 3, 1984, in this central Indian city was a tragedy. A pesticide plant run by Union Carbide leaked about 40 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas into the air, killing an estimated 15,000 people and affecting at least 500,000 more, according to government estimates. Activists say thousands of children have been born with brain damage, missing palates and twisted limbs because of their parents' exposure to the gas or to contaminated water.

Having failed to get Dow's Olympic sponsorship quashed, Bhopal activists carried through with their threat to hold their own "Olympics" the day before the London Games' opening ceremony to showcase the devastation caused by the gas leak.

The Bhopal "Olympics" began with children with cerebral palsy, partial paralysis and mental disability parading in wheelchairs and walking with the assistance of others around a rundown, outdoor stadium overlooking the old pesticide plant.

Events included a crab race on all fours, wheelchair races and an "assisted walking" 25-meter sprint.

Jamila Bi brought her wheelchair-bound 11-year-old grandson, Amaan, who has cerebral palsy.

"Today these children are participating, in spite of what Union Carbide did to them," Bi said. "We are happy that they will walk. Those people will see that in spite of what they did these children are still participating."

Some children carried brooms to symbolize their demand that Dow clean up the plant. Others in the concrete stands held banners reading "Dow Poisons" or "Don't let Dow Chem contaminate Olympics." Placards suggested Dow's participation in London should make one "ashamed to be a Brit."

Dow, which is sponsoring a decorative sheath around London's Olympic Stadium, was trying to use the Games to wash away its responsibility to the people of Bhopal, said Satinath Sarangi, a protest organizer.

"Dow Chemical as a sponsor violates the very spirit of the Olympics," he said.

Survivors say Dow should pay $8 billion in compensation to the victims and their families and clean up the soil and groundwater around the plant.

In a statement, Dow expressed sympathy with the victims but accused activists of trying to rewrite history. The company reiterated that it never owned the pesticide plant. It is linked to the tragedy because 16 years later, in 2001, it bought the Union Carbide Corporation, an American company that had a majority stake in the Bhopal plant.

Dow says the legal case was resolved in 1989 when Union Carbide settled with the Indian government for $470 million, and that all responsibility for the factory now rests with the government of the state of Madhya Pradesh, which now owns the site.

"Those trying to attach Dow to the incident are misinformed or misguided," said Scot Wheeler, a Dow spokesman.

Investigators say the accident occurred when water entered a sealed tank containing the highly reactive gas, causing pressure in the tank to rise too high.

Union Carbide Corp. said the accident was an act of sabotage by a disgruntled employee who was never identified. It has denied the disaster was the result of lax safety standards or faulty plant design, as claimed by some activists.

The Bhopal activists are also using their protest to try to embarrass the British for what they say is a lengthy history of oppression of their former colony.