By Liana B. Baker
(Reuters) - Visa Inc, operator of the world's largest payments network, said on Wednesday it had signed sponsorship deals with all 10 members of the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) refugee team, essentially becoming their first corporate sponsor.
The IOC introduced its inaugural refugee team in June to draw global attention to the plight of refugees. The athletes, six men and four women will compete in the sports of swimming, judo and athletics and march with the Olympic flag just before host Brazil at the opening ceremony Aug. 5.
The team includes five athletes from South Sudan, two from Syria, two from Democratic Republic of Congo and one from Ethiopia. All are required to have official refugee status, according to the United Nations.
Chris Curtin, Visa's chief marketing innovation and brand officer, said sponsoring refugee athletes ties into the concept of acceptance that is one of the creative threads behind the company's Olympic campaign, and also an idea consumers associate with credit cards.
The company can use the refugees in their marketing campaigns if the IOC approves it. The IOC said in a statement that it helped facilitate Visa's support of the refugee athletes in Rio and that it is "delighted" that the athletes have the company as a sponsor.
Some advocates for refugees have questioned whether it is opportunistic for companies to use refugees in advertising campaigns.
The value of Visa's deals with refugee athletes, which it brokered directly with them with the help of the IOC, was not disclosed.
Curtin said the contracts are "identical, comparable deals," to sponsorship agreements Visa has with more well-known athletes.
Visa is working with 60 Olympians and Paralympians ahead of Rio, including U.S. athletes such as swimmer Missy Franklin, beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings and Ashton Eaton, who won the gold medal in decathlon in London.
Visa had previously announced a deal with Yusra Mardini, an elite swimmer who left Syria last August. Mardini and her sister swam for more than three hours in the open sea to get to Greece after the small boat she was on started to capsize. She helped more than a dozen or so people on the boat survive the journey.
Mardini now trains in Germany. Visa posted a photo of Mardini on its Facebook page with the text "Accept me because I've swum against the current to get where I belong."
(Reporting by Liana B. Baker in San Francisco; Editing by Andrew Hay and Bernard Orr)