Olympics, Team USA, Go for the Gold, Let the Games Begin. Unless you’re an official Olympic sponsor, you can’t say those words on social media or in any form of marketing in the month surrounding the Olympic Games. The International Olympic Committee and national committees have tight restrictions on who can say what during the games in an effort to protect their intellectual property and their official sponsors. However, this ban on Olympic intellectual property goes far beyond what many would expect and smaller brands and athletes feel snubbed by these iron-clad regulations.
Just how strict is this ban? Well, businesses can’t use any trademarked words or phrases or use any terms that reference Olympic locations, like Rio 2016. Words that incorporate the word “Olympic” in them like Mathlympics are off-limits too. Hashtags with trademarks, official logos, any photos taken at the Olympics, Olympians, event results, or even good wishes for the athletes better not show up in your tweets either because that’s all forbidden too. Don’t even retweet from official Olympics social media accounts.
So why are these rules so strict? Is the Olympic committee that worried a restaurant is going to make a few extra sales for making the Olympic logo with some onion rings? To really understand where these rules rooted from, let’s take it back to Atlanta, Georgia, 1996.
At the Atlanta Summer Olympics, runner Michael Johnson blew past the competition and took gold in the 400-meter dash, wearing a pair of beautiful gold Nikes. A $30,000 pair of gold Nikes. Millions of viewers saw them glimmering on screen and on the cover of Time magazine a few days later. With Johnson’s gilded feet, combined with other tactics, like giving away flags to attendees with their iconic Swoosh, Nike had weaseled their way into the Olympics without paying for an official sponsorship. This ambush marketing by the brand enraged Reebok, an actual, paying Olympic sponsor, and Olympic officials. In response, the Olympic committee created a very strict set of rules on what non-sponsor brands and businesses can and can’t do during the games, and have held strong in enforcing them year after year.
Becoming an Olympic sponsor isn’t easy. The price tag for sponsorship comes in at a reported $100 to $200 million, something smaller brands can’t afford. This leaves these valued spots open for brands like GE, Visa, Coca-Cola and Samsung who can afford to shell out the cash. The Olympic committee defends these rules by saying it prevents over-commercialization of the games and keeps exclusivity for its sponsors, who make up 45% of the funding for the games.
The ban on all Olympic intellectual property to brands isn’t the only marketing controversy surrounding the Olympics. With many athletes living below the poverty line, going to the Olympics should be a great way for them to get more spotlight and make money. However, the strict marketing rules make it difficult for them to do so. During the games, athletes can’t wear anything or show anything that supports a non-sponsor brand. For example, if an athlete is sponsored by a brand, they can’t wear anything with that brand’s logo on it, such as a shirt or a swim cap, a huge possible money maker. This significantly cuts into marketing opportunities for athletes.
This rule, set by the International Olympic Committee, has especially come under fire this year. During the 2016 Rio Olympic broadcast, swimmer Michael Phelps was seen with his brand logo “MP” on his swim cap and on his baby’s clothes. This small self-promo may seem insignificant, but marketing experts estimate he got the equivalent of $750,000 in ad time. Had any other athlete pulled something like that, they would have never gotten away with it as it directly violates IOC rules. However, as Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian ever with 20+ gold medals around his neck, the IOC is shy to say anything about it.
This double standard hurts other Olympians that can’t get paid for promoting brands during the Olympics and don’t make any money off of the official Olympic sponsors. The IOC makes billions of dollars off of the Olympics, and despite the fact there is no show without these world-class athletes, they aren’t really seeing any of those dollars. The International Olympic Committee wants exclusivity, but they aren’t paying their athletes for it. Not being able to market themselves during the most high-profile two weeks of their career is a huge blow to the hours of work and training these athletes have put in to get to there.
The Olympics are an incredible event, bringing together athletes from all over the world and promoting athleticism, good sportsmanship, and friendship between countries. As one of the most widely televised events, it’s also a great marketing opportunity, for the Olympic committee, brands, and athletes. Or, at least it should be. Tight regulations on Olympic intellectual property make it nearly impossible for brands to market on the Olympics if they can’t shell out the cash to become an official sponsor. These rules also make it impossible for the athletes to make a profit from the event, despite them being the heart of and soul the Olympics. With the controversies surrounding these rules and regulations, will there be any change by the 2018 games in Pyeongchang, or by Tokyo 2020? Or will these backwards rules continue to stiff small brands and the athletes that make the games possible?