Silencing Sponsors During the Olympic Games

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When we discuss trademark law on this blog, our focus is often on how parties use their names and brands, how they protect them, and how they defend them.

The Olympics have raised another interesting issue about brands and sponsorship – what happens when parties are required to remain silent about brands. Specifically, the International Olympic Committee (the “IOC”) requires Olympic athletes to refrain from promoting their sponsors via social media or other means during the Olympic Games.

On first glance, this so-called “Rule 40” would appear to promote a kind of purity in the Games – the celebration of the finest athletes and athletics, free from commercialism. Rule 40 prevents Michael Phelps and other well-known athletes from utilizing interviews to mention their big-name sponsors. But it is no secret that the IOC solicits and receives sponsorships from equally big names.

Indeed, the IOC has justified the ban as a means to protect its own sponsorships. “Ambush marketers have, in the past, used their association with athletes to suggest or imply that they have an association with the Olympic Games,” reads the code of conduct, as quoted in a recent article on the subject. “This undermines the exclusivity that Organizing Committees can offer official Games and team sponsors, without whose investment the Games could not happen.”

Now, however, athletes are risking disqualification by participating in a Twitter campaign under the hashtags #Rule40 and #WeDemandChange in an attempt to pressure the IOC into action. The ban not only thwarts well-known athletes from thanking their sponsors; it also limits the types of action athletes in less well-known sports can take to raise the funds necessary to assist in their training and send them to the Olympics, a point that race walker Maria Michta makes in her personal blog.

The IOC has stated that it has no intention of backing down over Rule 40. “For one month, we ask [athletes] not to endorse products not related to the Olympics that don’t actually give money back to the movement,” said IOC spokesman Mark Jones.

What do you think of the ban? Should Olympic athletes be able to thank their sponsors during the Games? Do you think it harms the Olympics?