SOCHI, Russia Telecoms company AT&T, a sponsor of the U.S. Olympic team, has publicly criticized Winter Games host Russia over its "gay propaganda" law, adding to the pressure on other major companies to speak out.
Protesters had focused on getting the 10 global Olympic sponsors to take a tougher stand ahead of Friday's opening ceremony but will welcome the support of such a well known company as AT&T.
A law passed last year outlaws promotion of homosexuality among minors. Russia's critics argue that the legislation fosters a climate of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups in Russia.
"Russia's law is harmful to LGBT individuals and families, and it's harmful to a diverse society," AT&T said in a blog post headlined: "A Time for Pride and Equality."
"We also want to be on record with our support for the LGBT community, and we hope that others involved with the Olympic Games will do the same," it added.
The issue has caused embarrassment to companies including McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble who pay around $100 million each for rights to sponsor the Olympics over a four-year period and want to tap into a feel-good atmosphere during the Games.
"These brands have spent millions to align themselves with the Olympics, but have repeatedly refused to support the founding principles of the Games," said Andre Banks, who is based in New York and is one of the founders of gay rights group All Out.
The major sponsors have said they are opposed to discrimination but say it is up to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ensure the Games are free of prejudice.
Rights groups accuse them of failing to live up to their commitment to support diversity. Some analysts believe that sponsors have toned down their marketing efforts around the February 7-23 Sochi Games because of the bad publicity.
Athletes who wish to speak out 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, who has come to Sochi.
"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 Peter Rutherford and Mitch Phillips)