Companies pay hundreds of millions of dollars to be official Olympic sponsors, and for decades, the IOC has tried to crack down on non-sponsor brands invading the Games’ space. But that hasn’t stopped unsanctioned brands from finding ways to use the IOC’s valuable platform to market themselves.
Canadian athleisure brand Lululemon, for instance, released a line of clothing around the 2010 Vancouver Games, which it named “Cool Sporting Event That Takes Place in British Columbia Between 2009 & 2011.” In 1996, Puma earned some Olympic airtime when British sprinter Linford Christie wore contact lenses bearing the company’s logo to a press conference. And, of course, who can forget the sprinter Michael Johnson walking the track after winning the 400 meters at those Atlanta Games, with his gold custom-made Nike spikes hanging around his neck? The official sponsor that year was Reebok, and the company was not happy with the exposure Nike or Puma received on their dime.
The IOC’s Rule 40 was designed to prohibit brands from using such ambush marketing techniques at the Olympics, and since its inception in 1991, the rule has been somewhat successful. Gone are the days when Nike literally painted the Olympic host town with its logo, despite its non-sponsor status. “I remember in Los Angeles [in 1984], Nike was not an Olympic sponsor, but they bought the sides of buildings,” said Benita Fitzgerald-Mosley, who won gold for the U.S. in the 100-meter hurdles that year and is now the head of Community & Impact at LeagueApps. “Forget billboards—they painted their athletes Mary Decker, Alberto Salazar, Carl Lewis in their gear on the side of the buildings near the venues, around town. But, of course, that can never happen anymore. So [marketers] are finding more stealth ways through social media and the athlete’s apparel to ambush.”
Indeed, with the rise of social media and viral advertising, Rule 40 runs the risk of being both outdated and impossible to police. And over the last few years, it has even come under legal challenges for the monopolistic control the IOC holds over the Games and its participants. In 2019 the German Cartel Office, the country’s national competition regulator, led the fight against the IOC, arguing that Rule 40 was anti-competitive toward non-sponsors and unduly penalized athletes who could otherwise take advantage of promotional activities leading up to and during the Games. Germany’s dispute led the IOC to relax restrictions for unofficial sponsors and extend changes in interpretation and application of Rule 40 for all national committees.
Accordingly, the USOPC, in October 2019, announced key changes for their athletes, such as “increased opportunity to honor existing and engage new personal sponsors, less restrictive timelines for aligning with personal sponsors and creative execution,” meaning Team USA athletes could theoretically recognize personal sponsors during the Games (within certain parameters).
While athletes will have more flexibility in Tokyo to participate in commercial activities, they could still find themselves on the wrong side of the IOC and USOPC. In his newsletter, former professional middle-distance runner Kyle Merber said the rules “are still comically restrictive.” He pointed out that U.S. athletes are allowed to post up to seven thank you notes on social media mentioning their sponsors, but they must be done with a generic image that cannot include any connection to Team USA or the Olympics. “So if you win a gold medal then make sure you don’t post a picture of yourself crossing the finish line,” Merber wrote.
Rule 40’s restrictions, which apply to advertising during the Games Period (defined this year as July 13-Aug. 10, 2021), include forbidding athletes from using images that include the Olympic symbol or any connection to the Olympic Games in Tokyo. But given today’s media landscape, with the pervasiveness of social media, athlete and corporate creativity are likely to continue poking holes in Rule 40, much as they have in the past. Beats by Dre circumvented IOC regulations first in Beijing, in 2008, when LeBron James, the U.S. men’s basketball team captain, bought each of his teammates a pair of the $350 noise-canceling headphones—which became prominent in TV shots of players walking to the venue. In 2012, the company sent customized headphones to many top U.S. and British athletes.
The most recent incident took place during U.S. Track and Field Trials in June, when hurdler Christina Clemons’ Doritos earrings stole the show. “My husband calls me Dorito,” Clemons explained when reporters asked about the miniature Doritos Cool Ranch bags (cost $7.90) dangling from her ears as she qualified for her first Games. The 31-year-old Ohio State alum said her husband nicknamed her after the triangular snack chip because of her broad shoulders and narrow hips. She insisted Frito-Lay was not involved with her choice of accessories. However, the company officially announced it would sponsor Clemons on Twitter, and they sent her a custom gold version of her Doritos earrings as a token of good luck.
Clemons’ story is charming and also a textbook example of how athletes can use social media to bring brands into the spotlight. It also points to a hard economic fact: Most Olympic athletes need sponsors to survive. Based on 2019 data, U.S. competitors can earn medal bonuses—$37,500 for gold, $22,500 for silver, and $15,000 for a bronze—in addition to stipends they receive year round, but income amounts vary widely. Non-official sponsors looking for exposure during mega sports events can provide these athletes with a crucial income boost.
“Olympic athletes are not wealthy, and this is the limited amount of time they can capitalize it so you cannot blame them for accepting those opportunities,” Fitzgerald-Mosley said. “And on the other hand, the companies are doing these for years, so whether or not I agree with it or not, it is part of the Olympic Games. Olympic Gaming, I call it.”