I am a complete sap when it comes to the Olympic Games, and have been since I was an uncoordinated, bespectacled suburban kid with bad depth perception and a penchant for getting injured at seemingly innocuous backyard games like badminton and kickball. While I’m relatively indifferent when it comes to sports generally, there’s something about the nations of the world coming together, even for a brief moment, in a global spirit of cooperation…it’s uplifting, energizing even. It makes me hopeful for the future of humanity, something of which I’m fairly skeptical most other weeks of the year.
And so, when the siren call of that infectious Olympic theme began to ring out during every NBC commercial break, I started trying to get my daughter psyched about the upcoming London games. At first, she wasn’t that interested — her mind is too preoccupied with summer camp, our dog Olive’s latest attempt to eat the telephone, and getting past a streak of four in Plants vs. Zombies Vasebreaker Endless. But she’s coming around. Last week, she asked me what the Olympic rings symbolized. We did some hard-hitting research and learned that the multicolored interlocking rings, designed by Baron Pierre de Coubertin (the founder of the modern Olympic Games) in 1912, “represent the five parts of the world which now are won over to Olympism and willing to accept healthy competition.”
Hmm. “Willing to accept healthy competition,” you say. Really.
Well, I think somebody better clue in the United States Olympic Committee, and fast. You see, in the same Google search that brought me the lofty ideals of Baron Pierre, I learned that last month, the USOC sent a cease and desist letter to Athens Voulgaridis, the owner of Philadelphia restaurant Olympic Gyro. The USOC claimed that Mr. Voulgaridis infringed on the Committee’s exclusive rights in the word “Olympic,” and it demanded that he delete the word “Olympic” from the name of the eatery he opened nearly 30 years ago.
Don’t the modern Olympic Games derive from an ancient sporting event held in Olympia, Greece — one that preceded United States copyright and trademark law and indeed, the good ole U.S.A. itself, by thousands of years? Shouldn’t Mr. Voulgaridis be able to name his Greek restaurant in honor of his home country?
Apparently, the United States Congress is unmoved by such incisive Socratic reasoning.
In the “Amateur Sports Act of 1978” (the “ASA”), Congress expressly granted the USOC exclusive rights to use the words “Olympic,” “Olympiad” and “Olympian.” And, brandishing this Congressional mandate like the lightning bolt of mighty Zeus, the USOC has aggressively protected “their” intellectual property, suing or threatening to sue countless organizations such as: The Olympian (a newspaper based in the infringing town of Olympia, Washington); The International Institute for Sport and Olympic History (a non-profit set up to raise funds for a library and museum dedicated to the history of sports); Minnesota indie-pop band “The Olympic Hopefuls” (now known by the decidedly more forlorn name “The Hopefuls”); Maine-based sporting festival The Redneck Olympics; Ravelry.com, a free social network for knitters and crocheters (they had the audacity to host a “Ravelympics” knitting competition); and The Olympics of the Mind — another non-profit, designed to create “healthy competition” between school age kids to foster critical thinking (take that, Socrates…). (They were forced to change to the more interesting but equally risky name “The Odyssey of the Mind,” but thankfully Arthur C. Clarke never filed suit. HAL 9000 declined to comment.) And now, joining that distinguished list, we have gyro shop owner Mr. Voulgaridis.
Of course, the USOC isn’t the only sporting colossus that can be ruthlessly protective of its marks. Our regular readers have already learned about how the NFL takes an equally aggressive approach to enforcement of its “Super Bowl” marks, even without a congressional mandate. But the USOC doesn’t just limit itself to menacing demand letters — in the 1980s, the Committee famously pursued the Gay Olympic Games all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The Court sided with the USOC, concluding, among other things, that the USOC did not have to prove that unauthorized use of the word Olympic was confusing to prevail because confusion was irrelevant under the ASA, and finding that there was no violation of the First Amendment because the ASA applies to commercial speech or speech involved in a theatrical or athletic performance.
You may have noticed that San Francisco’s Olympic Club — site, most recently, of one of the most publicized and watched “athletic performances” in the world — isn’t on the naughty list. Is it because knitters, mom-and-pop gyro shops, libraries, and smart kids cause more injury to the USOC “Olympic” brand than a world-renowned private athletic club frequented by at least one person associated with arguably the most widely publicized and damaging lascivious personal scandal in modern sports? Actually, turns out, Congress granted a limited exclusion for organizations in existence prior to enactment of the ASA.
But it doesn’t explain why the USOC has to get so nasty with the little guys who have neither a Congressional carve-out nor the resources to defend themselves. For example, in its unnecessarily hostile cease-and-desist letter to those reprobate crocheters at Ravelry, the USOC wrote: “The Olympic Games represent ideals that go beyond sport to encompass culture and education, tolerance and respect, world peace and harmony…. We believe using the name ‘Ravelympics’ for a competition that involves an afghan marathon, scarf hockey and sweater triathlon, among others, tends to denigrate the true nature of the Olympic games. In a sense, it is disrespectful to our country’s finest athletes and fails to recognize or appreciate their hard work.” (The USOC later apologized…ish.)
All of this would be easier to stomach if the USOC just descended from Mount Olympus for a moment and came clean about the “true nature” of the Olympic brand, over which Congress has so graciously given it a monopoly. While the amateur athletes who compete in the games do represent character and determination, athleticism and ability and yes, even tolerance and respect, the “Olympic brand,” at least of late, seems to stand for product placement and promotion, merchandise, marketing and money. The USOC basically said so itself in its Ravelry nastygram: “Other companies, like Nike and Ralph Lauren, have paid substantial sums for the right to use Olympic-related marks, and through their sponsorships support the U.S. Olympic Team. Therefore, it is important that we restrict the use of Olympic marks and protect the rights of companies who financially support Team USA.” (Of course, they’re fine with those sponsors financially supporting Team USA by manufacturing its uniforms in China.)
And so, because the Committee wants to protect its right to receive millions of dollars from Dow Chemical, Visa, McDonald’s and Coca Cola, and to protect these corporate sponsors’ rights to receive millions of dollars from uncoordinated, bespectacled people like me who love the Olympics, Mr. Voulgaridis will likely have to change the name of his gyro shop, jeopardizing the good will he and his family have spent the last three decades cultivating. Maybe Pete Dionasopolis, that curmudgeonly proprietor of the infamous Olympia Café, was on to something with his vehement preference of Pepsi over Coke. Then again, he never got sued.
I’m still looking forward to the Olympics, and I’m sure I’ll still be inspired by the celebration of mankind and the strength of the human spirit. But I’ll admit that this year, I’ve got a bit of a sour taste in my mouth, and it’s not from the gyros.
Oh well. Let the games begin.