Athletes vs the International Olympic Committee – a David vs Goliath moment?

Posted on
August 8, 2019

The commercial conflict

You’re a brand, have been supporting an athlete for years, stuck with them as they came through the ranks, been there for the highs and the lows, through injuries and disappointments and finally they make it to the ultimate stage – the Olympic Games. You are proud of being there since the start and just as your marketing team reach for Twitter to send a congratulatory tweet, someone remembers flipping Rule 40 that stops any brand outside of the The Olympic Partners (TOP) network (think McDonalds and Coca-Cola) and the partners to the national Olympic Committees from associating themselves with the athlete, or sending any form of congratulations.

Why does this matter?

The side-effects are that long-term sponsors of athletes competing in the Olympics are prevented on capitalising on their relationships and the athletes themselves are effectively prevented from marketing themselves during the period when they will be most publicly exposed.
Athletes also complain that this limits their earning potential around the few weeks when they are competing on an Olympic stage. It might be fine for tennis players for whom the Olympics is not the pinnacle of their sport, but for other athletes including swimmers, hockey players and sailors, when the Olympics is the one time these athletes have the opportunity to become household names, the brands that have supported them in the quieter years are dropped in favour of those who are only involved with the event itself or the National Organising Committees (NOCs).

A changing of position?

The IOC was under pressure to amend by-law 3 of Rule 40 after a ruling by the German cartel office which deemed it “too far reaching” and described it as “abusive conduct”. Brands in Germany are now allowed to use terms like medal, gold, silver, bronze, winter or summer games and can use certain competition and non-competition pictures taken during the Olympic Games as long as no Olympic symbols are used.
The amendment to Rule 40.3 is now as follows:

An opportunity open to interpretation

So what does this mean for athletes and for brands? Well, it’s still not entirely clear as the IOC has put the onus on the National Olympic Committees to publish their interpretation and implementation of Rule 40.
First out of the blocks (excuse the pun) was the Australian Olympic Committee which has approved changes to its Rule 40 guidelines creating greater flexibility for Australian athletes to promote their sponsors during the Games. Their guidelines state that athletes’ sponsors can continue ‘business as usual’ provided the campaign does not use Olympic properties and the campaign continues at the same pace and awareness as prior to the games. In addition, Australian athletes may now thank their personal sponsors for their support during the Games provided that:
  • There is no commercial connection made with the Olympic Games and the sponsor
  • The ‘thank you’ doesn’t suggest the sponsor was responsible for the athlete’s performance
  • The ‘thank you’ can be issued (across multiple social media platforms) once per performance, including any podium ceremony
  • The sponsor cannot congratulate the athlete for their performance
John Coates, the Australian Olympic Committee president said they were trying to strike a balance between the need for athletes to benefit commercially from their participation in the Olympics and the need to protect the IOC’s exclusive sponsorship and media agreements.
Global Athlete, a new international athlete-led movement with the aim to inspire and lead positive change in world sport, is calling for the IOC to take this even further to ensure that all NOCs adopt a relaxed Rule 40 to offer the same flexibility to athletes globally: “Global Athlete calls on all athletes to demand change and demand equal rights with their competitors. Athletes are the ones that bring in the revenues and so it is only right that athletes should be the ones being compensated and having their earning potential maximized.”

What about our British athletes?

The British Olympic Association hasn’t commented on these revised changes and the latest Rule 40 Guidelines were last published on 1 August 2017 prior to Pyeong Chang 2018. The BOA does have in place a ‘Rule 40 Waiver’ process which generally allows non-Olympic Partners to continue to use materials featuring athletes which have been used ‘continuously for a long-term period’ prior to the Games. However they are not allowed to have any rights of association including re-tweeting Team GB tweets at any time and not reference an athlete’s participation in the Games including by way of congratulatory message.

Maximising the opportunity

So what’s our advice for brands looking to create partnerships with athletes heading for the Olympics?
  • Follow closely the athlete’s NOC’s for any amendments to Rule 40 – you don’t want to fall foul, but also want to maximise the awareness you can have of your association with the athlete
  • Build a plan now and start to activate – with less than 1 year to go it will be essential to have evidence of long term support
  • Be creative in how you activate your partnership with the athlete – there are many ways to create association and inspire engagement with your current and future fan base
We’ll be keeping a close eye on other international competitions including the Commonwealth Games, which will next be held in 2022 in Birmingham, UK to see whether they too will be amending their versions of Rule 40.
To find out how you can maximise exposure around athletes heading to Tokyo 2020 and other major sporting events, please contact Emily Caroe.

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Posted on
August 8, 2019
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