Monday July 25th, 2016

If you were on social media on Tuesday night, you may have seen a number of Olympic athletes plugging their sponsors.

American steeplechaser Emma Coburn tweeted, ”#Rule40 starts tomorrow so I won't be able to say Thank You to my sponsor. THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING @newbalance.” Others followed with pictures of their jerseys, shoes, bikes and sunglasses. This was not an unintentional barrage of sponsored content. 

[tweet: https://twitter.com/emmajcoburn/status/757996240152002560]

We’re still a week away from the Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Rio Games, but on Wednesday athletes entered a blackout period when it comes to their sponsors due to Rule 40. Incorporated in the Olympic charter, the rule limits the use of an athlete’s image from July 27 to Aug. 24. 

It might seem crazy, but a tweet about a product can carry serious penalties for an athlete if the rule is strictly enforced.

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What is Rule 40?

Rule 40 was established to “to preserve the unique nature of the Olympic games by preventing over-commercialization” and to protect Olympic sponsors, who spend millions of dollars for exclusive marketing rights during the Olympics. It effectively prevents athletes from hawking their own sponsors. 

But social media has added a layer of complexity to athlete sponsorships, and the rule means no unofficial sponsors can associate with the Olympics on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or anywhere else. 

An athlete’s image can not be used to sell products or promote a brand or company, save for official Olympic sponsors like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nike, Visa and P&G, which are exempt. The rule also disallows any ambush marketing, defined as any direct or indirect attempt to associate with the Olympic Games.

In February 2015, the international Olympic Committee decided to relax its guidelines to allow "generic" or "non-Olympic advertising" during the Summer Games. This also allows for athletes to tweet and post on social media about non-official sponsors as long as they do not use any Olympic properties or references. The U.S. Olympic Committee has to grant approval to American sponsors and brands. 

Under the rule, non–official sponsors are not allowed to use the following phrases in any sort of advertising: 2016 Rio; Rio de Janeiro; Gold; Silver; Bronze; Medal; Effort; Performance; Challenge; Summer; Games; Sponsors; Victory; Olympia; Olympic; Olympics; Olympic Games; Olympiad; Olympiads and the Olympic motto “CitiusAltiusFortius.”

So if a random company tweets something that seems related to the Olympics and uses one of those phrases, it’s technically a violation of the rule. Even a simple message of support, like “Go Team USA,” would constitute a violation. 

Athletes can be disqualified and even stripped of medals if they violate Rule 40. The rule is enforced by the Olympic committees of each respective nation.

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Getting around Rule 40

Sally Bergesen, the owner of Oiselle, a Seattle–based women’s apparel company, has started using phrases like “Big Event in the Southern Hemisphere” and “city that rhymes with Neo Bee Sin Arrow” to refer to the Olympics and Rio de Janeiro. Bergesen has been one of the most vocal figures within the track and field community against the limitations on athlete sponsorship restrictions.

The USOC came down on Bergesen and Oiselle just one day after Kate Grace, a middle distance runner for the company, won the women’s 800 meters at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials on July 4. The governing body sent a letter requesting the company to remove an Instagram post that was captioned “She’s going to RIO!” as it was deemed a violation of the USOC trademark guidelines.

The USOC says it repeatedly warned Bergesen in the lead-up to the Olympic trials. Had Bergesen posted the message on her personal social media account, it would not have been a violation of Rule 40. 

Large companies like Under Armour are taking a more strategic approach around the rules. The Baltimore-based sports apparel company sponsors Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and released a commercial featuring the decorated star in March.

The videos have no references to any Olympic property or Rio de Janeiro. Under Armour also plans to host events along the beaches of Rio de Janeiro.

Smaller companies may not have as much money to pull off creative events or detailed commercials, leaving them supporting athletes from behind a keyboard—but a simple push of the tweet button can draw the ire of the IOC.

Oh, and who’s going after the cocaine dealers with the Rule 40–violating baggies

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