By Keith Weir
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - With the Winter Olympics only two days away, campaigners have urged major corporate sponsors to speak out about the way Games host Russia treats gay people.
Activists from the All Out gay rights group were staging protests in 20 cities around the world on Wednesday, with plans to gather outside branches of Olympic sponsor McDonald's in New York and Paris.
Rights groups have also written to the heads of the 10 global Olympic sponsors -- which also include U.S. consumer goods group Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola -- calling on them to use their marketing to promote equality.
"All Out members and global consumers are calling on Olympic sponsors to finally speak out against the persecution of gays and lesbians in Russia," said Andre Banks, who is based in New York and is one of the founders of All Out.
"These brands have spent millions to align themselves with the Olympics, but have repeatedly refused to support the founding principles of the Games," he added.
Russian President Vladimir Putin wants the Games in Sochi to showcase a strong, modern Russia but international attention has also focused on a law passed last year that critics say fuels discrimination against gays and lesbians.
The issue has caused embarrassment for the major companies who pay around $100 million each for rights to sponsor the Olympics over a four-year period and want to tap into a feelgood atmosphere at Games time.
Sponsors have said they are opposed to discrimination but say it is up to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ensure that the Games are free of prejudice.
Athletes face a dilemma over whether to speak out and risk falling foul of another IOC rule outlawing political protests at Games.
Athlete Ally, a group formed to fight homophobia in sport, is running a campaign based on Principle 6 of the Olympic charter, the section which pledges equality for all.
It is using the Principle 6 tag on social media and a range of clothing to get its message across and sees it as a way for athletes to make their point within the rules.
"We're working with a number of athletes that we know care very deeply about the LBGT community both in Russia and around the world," said Athlete Ally executive director Hudson Taylor.
"We're trying to find that balance of helping athletes speak out but also being respectful of what they are here to accomplish," he added.
(Editing by Mitch Phillips)