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  • The IOC's Rule 40: Olympic Sponsorship's Achilles Heel -- OpEd


    The Olympic logo is recognized by 93 percent of the world, and with that kind of Q rating, it’s not surprising brands want in.
    Idy Uyoe

    In its latest revenue forecasts for 2013-2016, the International Olympic Committee, forecasts sponsors will have collectively dropped $1.1 billion for exclusive association with Games within the 4-year quadrennial.

    The IOC’s Rule 40 was implemented to protect sponsors from “ambush marketing” – companies which seek unauthorized commercial exploitation of the Olympic brand without paying for it. But in a world of social media and instant access, does Rule 40 go too far in suppressing athlete expression considering the currency they offer the brand? While the IOC’s Rule 40 remains essential, further tweaks are needed to make it more practical without completely attenuating the joy of competition.

    >> To understand Rule 40 one must look to the distant past to appreciate why IOC oligarchs fiercely guard this revenue stream.

    In 1978, the United Nations actively considered taking over the Olympic movement from the IOC. The organization was on the brink of bankruptcy barely two years removed from Montreal, its host city for the 1976 games, which racked up $1.6 billion in debt. That same year, the only two entities interested in bidding for the ’84 games were a group of Los Angeles businessmen and the Shah of Iran. The Shah later withdrew for obvious reasons, and the LA group had carte blanche to do what it wanted with the ’84 Olympics. LA implemented an innovating sponsorship model based on exclusivity across various categories as a means of privately funding the games, and walked away with a $233 million surplus. A year later, the IOC’s TOP (The Olympic Partnership) sponsorship program was born, and the Olympics were on their way to financial solvency. Rule 40 is intended to keep it that way.

    Non-Olympic sponsors won't be seen on golfers' bags (Getty Images)
    At its core, the IOC’s Rule 40 states, “Except as permitted by the IOC executive board, no competitor, coach, trainer or official who participates in the Olympic Games may allow his person, name, picture or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games.” The Rule grants certain waivers, which if approved, allows non-sponsors with existing campaigns to continue running them “in their current form” through the blackout period, once a litany of criterion are met. For the Rio Olympics the blackout runs from July 27th-August 24th.

    Either way, non-Olympic sponsors and athletes are not permitted to make references to the Olympic Games in any way. Banned language during this period includes terms such as Olympics, Olympiad, Olympic Games and the Olympic motto. Additionally, Olympic-related terms such as Rio de Janeiro, Effort, Victory, Gold, Silver, Bronze, Medal, Summer, Performance and Challenge can only be used in a non-Olympic context during the blackout period.

    Understandably, many athletes and brands have trouble with this. Under the amended Rule 40, the stay-at-home dad training in his spare time is prohibited from sending a clear “Thank You” tweet if it references, in any way, the organization or company which provided the support that enabled his Olympic dream. Many believe this not only mutes the joy of winning, but significantly diminishes the athletes’ profile at a time his/her visibility is highest and personal brand most valuable. An Olympic athlete by definition is ultra-competitive and won’t think twice about shouting a “Thank You” tweet from the proverbial Mount Olympus in the thrill of victory, particularly when one considers the lifetime of training and sacrifices required to get there.


    According to the IOC, “the role of the implementation of Rule 40 in each country is the responsibility of the [National Olympic Committee] NOC of the relevant territories or the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Organizing Committee.” Really? Good luck with that.

    For one thing, NOCs are not structured to enforce an IOC decree of this nature, and very few have clear processes for doing so. Beyond the usual statements and PowerPoints on what’s acceptable and what isn’t under the Rule, penalties for a breach remain ambiguous, reduced to threats wholly impractical to carry out. For instance, is a tweet during the blackout period more egregious than running a full-page newspaper or online ad? Who makes the decision that the offense constitutes an offense? Who adjudicates and in what jurisdiction? Is there an appeal process? In naturally seeking to protect its interest, the IOC passes the buck to NOCs who are unnaturally missioned to enforce outdated pre-social-media rules. Many of the smaller NOC’s may simply ignore Rule 40.

    Further, the optics of a powerful NOC stripping an Olympic dream from its own athlete over a questionable breach of Rule 40 to protect the interest of a multi-billion dollar company at the behest of a Swiss nonprofit group (the IOC), would look exceptionally poor. Public sentiment would overwhelmingly favor the “offending” party, generating more positive exposure for the brand than any sponsorship could buy.


    For Rule 40 to be realistic, it must evolve. I’m reminded of when the Olympics clung to its purist views of an amateurs-only Games, a farcical notion finally buried in 1988. Adding professionals, like the Dream Team in 1992, served to elevate the Olympic brand and increase the Games’ popularity, especially among sponsors. Imagine that.

    (Getty Images/Allsport UK/Allsport)
    There is no evidence to suggest that amending Rule 40 to be more inclusive of athletes and their supporters will adversely impact the exclusivity offered within the Olympic TOP program. Additionally, the absence of a practical social media strategy for Rule 40 reveals a baffling lack of understanding on the part of IOC brass, of social media’s power and reach if deployed effectively. Rather than waging an unwinnable war in muzzling social media, the pivot should aim to leverage its scale to increase Olympic popularity among the Millennials it desperately needs to sustain brand relevance.

    During the last Super Bowl, 27 million Super Bowl-related tweets were viewed by 4.3 billion people. Twitter is just one of many social media platforms, and the Olympics are the equivalent of staging five Super Bowls per day for 17 consecutive days. With that type of volume, it’s difficult to see how NOCs will screen millions of Olympic mentions on multiple social media channels.

    The Olympics provide an excellent platform for the best athletes to showcase their skills, and they all compete “free” of charge, win or lose. Should an athlete prevail in any noteworthy capacity, Rule 40 in its current form stifles his/her ability to maximize the moment when exposure level is highest. A refined version of Rule 40 that acknowledges the realities of social media while allowing expressions of joy and gratitude for those that shared the athlete’s Olympic journey, should seriously be considered. It makes the games, and the moment, so much better.

    Written by Idy Uyoe, M.A.

    Idy Uyoe is an Olympic scholar, commentator and sports marketing professional. He is an active member of the International Society of Olympic Historians and is the producer and host of the online series The Olympic Moment – with new episodes available on YouTube and Facebook.