An Olympic-sized debate is taking place on the sidelines of the 2012 London Games and it has nothing to do with the actual sporting events. The brouhaha concerns protecting the sponsorship investment of the biggest marketing companies in the world and how far the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will go to control what athletes say on social media sites.
Rule 40-an article in the Olympic charter- forbids athletes from appearing in commercials, endorsing or wearing product for companies other than the 11 official Games worldwide sponsors during the Olympics. The Games sponsors — which include Visa, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s — spend almost US$100 million a piece for sponsorship rights and category exclusivity around the Olympics. It is how the Host and National Olympic committees receive funds towards running the Games. As well, some athletes benefit year-round from programs paid for in part by official sponsorship money. IOC President Jacques Rogge has defended Rule 40 saying “We have to protect the sponsors because otherwise there is no sponsorship and without sponsorship there is no Games.”
For many athletes with competing sponsorship agreements, it’s their main source of income and support to train for the Games and they are protesting. It seems Rule 40 even goes so far as to ban athletes from mentioning their sponsors on Facebook, Twitter or other social media during the Games. American 2-time Olympian and medal contender in the men’s 800 Nick Symmonds tweeted: “#Rule40 can kiss my temporarily tattooed butt. I wouldn’t be in London today without my sponsors!” Other Olympians have been quick to join the protest using the hashtags #Rule40 and #wedemandchange on Twitter. Failure to comply with Rule 40 can result in being unable to compete. Essentially, Tweet or blog at your peril.
The costs and complexity of organizing and running the Olympics is staggering. The London Games comes with a hefty price tag of $14.5 Billion dollars. So, sponsorship dollars are essential to underwriting even a portion of those costs. There is no question the official sponsors have paid top dollar to promote their brands through the Olympic experience with the promise of exclusivity, and those rights should be protected. So, I think it very reasonable the IOC wants to protect those interests and keep competitive advertising out of the Games. But, I think the IOC is going too far by trying to control free speech and muzzle what athletes say outside of the arena on their personal Twitter feeds, Facebook and other social media sites. When you restrict speech it sends the wrong message. Especially when part of the IOC’s mission statement is to “encourage and support the development of sport for all”. I have posted a poll. Let me know what you think.