PYEONGCHANG, South Korea: One might expect Mark Tuitert to be happy after helping give birth to one of the feel-good stories of the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Far from it.
The Dutch speed-skating gold medalist from the 2010 Vancouver Games pulled strings to help secure funding for Akwasi Frimpong, the skeleton athlete from Ghana whose unlikely Olympic journey is writing headlines far beyond Africa and his home in the Netherlands.
Tuitert’s company, which sells chewing gum, kicked in sponsorship, too.
But Frimpong and Tuitert will have to wait until after the games to commercially milk his newfound attention. Their hands are tied by IOC regulations that protect official sponsors, who collectively pay billions of dollars to be associated with the games, by keeping athletes’ non-Olympic sponsors at arm’s length from the show.
“As a sponsor, I’m not allowed to mention him in any way, have a relation with him in any way on social media or add an advertisement wishing him luck. I can’t be associated, with my company, with him, in any way,” Tuitert said. “It’s not fair.”
Following concerted pressure from U.S. Olympians at the 2012 London Games, the International Olympic Committee ceded some territory in the enforcement of its Rule 40 that forbids the unauthorized use of participants’ names, pictures, or Olympic performances for advertising during the games.
In short: If the sponsor doesn’t follow the rules, the athlete pays the price.
Pyeongchang is the second Olympics, following the 2016 Rio Games, where the IOC is allowing athletes and non-official sponsors to seek approval for generic advertisements. The precondition: They can’t suggest any direct or indirect association with the games.
So a sportswear firm, for example, might now reasonably expect to be allowed to continue running ads showing a winter athlete in action away from the Olympics. But if Lindsey Vonn wins the downhill in Pyeongchang, her sponsor Red Bull would still land her in trouble and likely infuriate Olympic partner Coca-Cola were it to tweet something along the lines of “Congrats on the Olympic gold medal @lindseyvonn!”
“It was a slight step for the athletes, a first step for the athletes, but it was a revolution to change the rule itself and to say, ‘You can do advertising during the blackout period,’” says Florian Frank, who deals with Rule 40 issues as head of marketing for the German Olympic committee.
Still, many athletes remain unsatisfied.
“A bummer” is how US snowboarder Ryan Stassel described not being able to promote his longtime sponsor, eyewear manufacturer Bolle, during the Games. He understands that organizers want to keep the commercial-free look of Olympic venues and don’t want athletes to “sticker ourselves up and come in looking like NASCAR drivers.”
“But I feel like there should be a rule where, you know, if they’ve been with you two years prior to the games or maybe four years prior that, you know, those people you should be able to represent,” Stassel said. “Because they’ve been with us through it all and we’re not just going out to grab quick money and try to promote for the Games.”
In a decision that could ripple across the Olympic movement, Olympians picked up some heavyweight support in the push for more commercial opportunities from the competition regulator in Germany. Its Federal Cartel Office said in December that it suspects the IOC and the German Olympic committee of “abusing their dominant position” and called their advertising rules “too restrictive.”
“The athletes, as the performers in the Olympic Games, do not benefit directly from the very high advertising revenues generated by the official Olympic sponsors,” the cartel office said.
The immediate upshot of its ongoing investigation is that extra leeway is being granted to German athletes at the Pyeongchang Games.
Nonofficial sponsors are allowed to congratulate German athletes for their performances (but still not use specific Olympic terms like ‘gold medal’) and German Olympians can post ‘thank you’ messages to their sponsors on social media, Frank said.
Most significantly, should the IOC, the German Olympic committee and Pyeongchang organizers tweet about a German success, the athlete will be able to retweet that and “put a ‘thank you’ post in it or a message for their sponsors,” Frank said.
In the carefully policed domain of Olympic sponsorship, that opening could create an association in consumers’ minds between an Olympic achievement and a non-Olympic brand, says John Grady, a professor of sports law at the Universit of South Carolina.
“That is a significant win for sponsors, because now they are getting their name associated with that moment, which is what Rule 40 blacked out,” said Grady, who specializes in sponsorship issues at large sporting events. “They can achieve what official sponsors are typically paying for.”
Tuitert hopes the German case could lead to more relaxed advertising rules for all Olympians, many of whom, like Frimpong, aren’t getting rich off their sports.
“This is going to be the crack,” he said. “The eye of the world is upon you for eight to nine weeks during the Games, and that’s where everybody who supported you has to step back and can’t join the party. That’s not possible. That’s not sustainable for an athlete.”
Before the Rule 40 games-time blackout kicked in Feb. 1 on ads that haven’t been cleared, athletes posted final thanks to sponsors.
And in Pyeongchang, they’ve been sanitizing posts rather than risk emails from Olympic officials telling them to take down things that cross the lines.
“We’ve been trying to look out for each other,” said US snowboarder Jamie Anderson. “We’re like, ‘Wait. Can we do that? I don’t know. Can we? Ahh. Ummh. Let’s be safe.’”
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