On the Trail of the O-Word Despite official efforts to curb unsanctioned use of the word 'Olympic,' the author finds it lurking here, there and everywhere

September 13, 1988

FOLLOW THE TRAIL WHEREVER IT TAKES ME. I look for the flash of a
faraway neon sign. I listen for the sound of a jukebox. Or is that a
jackhammer? Or a cash register? Hard to say. I head toward the
Olympics. These Olympics. Here. The everyday Olympics of everyday
Olympic Burger and Burrito.
Olympic Fish and Meat Market.
Olympic Fruit and Vegetable.
I have lists. I have more lists. I have area codes and telephone
numbers. I know that it is unlawful in the United States for any
business to use the word Olympic in its name. I also know of one
widely publicized estimate that as many as 40,000 businesses do not
pay attention to this law. Forty thousand? And who knows how many
thousands more there are in other countries? I try to make sense out
of nonsense.
Olympic Bar B Que.
Olympic Pawn Shop.
Olympic Van Lines.
I can see all these 40,000 Olympic businesses spaced equally
across the landscape as if they were so many highway Howard Johnsons.
Five more miles to next Olympic business. No, I can see them all in
one town, 40,000 storefronts. Olympicville. Olympic City. No, I can
see them the way they are, thrown everywhere on the map like so much
grass seed. Dots and more dots.
Is there any fair-sized town that does not have an Olympic Diner
somewhere on its outskirts? One Olympic Diner leads into two Olympic
Realty offices, which lead into three Olympic Laundromats. There seem
to be no boundaries. These Olympics are everywhere. Around the
country. Around the world. The Olympic Diner of Abu Dhabi? The
Olympic Diner of Beijing? The Olympic Diner of Moscow? Everywhere.
Olympic Camera.
Olympic National Bank.
Olympic Sales.
''An Olympic hair fashion would be an individualized hair style,''
says Mr. John O'Toole, of Mr. John's Olympic Hair Fashions in
Minneapolis, when I call him. ''It would be something that fit you,
individually. Your Olympic hair fashion would not be someone else's
hair fashion.''
''How about your own Olympic hair fashion?''
''Oh, I'm completely bald,'' Mr. John says.
Olympic Mini-Shop.
Olympic Motor Lodge.
Olympic Nursery.
I wonder if anyone ever rips open the front door in these places
and starts talking about the Olympics. The real Olympics. ''Hey, will
anyone ever beat Bob Beamon's long jump? . . . Hey, how do those East
Germans get so fast and strong? . . . Hey, do you think John Thompson
knows what he's doing? . . . Hey, what's so modern about the modern
pentathlon? . . .'' I wonder if secretaries would start running. I
wonder if calls would be made in a hurry. I wonder if anyone would
understand this sudden foreign language.
Olympic Airways.
Olympic Plastics.
Olympic Paper.
The Olympus of Olympic businesses, at least in this country, is
Los Angeles. & The Manhattan telephone book lists 58 Olympic numbers.
The Chicago book lists 33. The downtown Los Angeles directory has
137. One reason L.A. has so many is that the Games have been held
there twice, the last time in '84. Another is Olympic Boulevard, a
long street with many Olympic establishments.
On a typical Olympic-business day in L.A., a person could rise
from a bed from Olympic Bed, slip into a pair of wing tips from
Olympic Shoes, dress in an outfit from Olympic Fashions, eat a hearty
breakfast with items from the Olympic Supermarket and fly onto the
freeway in a car from Olympic Auto Leasing. Where to go? Ride down
Olympic. Go to the Olympic Theatre. Whatever. Do lunch. Olympic
Olympic Stereo.
Olympic Auto Stereo.
Olympic Factory Hi-Fi and TV.
I reach the owner of Olympic Taxidermy, outside Seattle. His name
is John Cook, but he likes to be called Buzzi. I want to be David
Letterman, the late- night comedian, when I talk to him. I want to
stand in the shop with cameras and lights and with the big cigar and
the wise-guy attitude. O-lym-pic Taxidermy, huh, Buzzi? What is this?
A new event? Squirrel stuffing? Do you think we'll beat the Russians?

I am not David Letterman. I am a voice on the phone. ''Why do you
call your place Olympic Taxidermy?'' I ask.
''The Olympic Mountains are nearby,'' says Cook. ''You can see
them from just about any window in the studio.''
Olympic Lighting Supply.
Olympic Electric.
Olympic Electronics.
The owners of most Olympic restaurants seem to be Greek. They
shout, ''I am Greek,'' when I ask why they picked the name. It is
like asking a Frenchman why he has a picture of the Eiffel Tower on
the outside of his cafe.
''I used this name because I am Greek,'' says Nick Rizos of
Olympic Pizza in Dallas.
Olympic Disposal.
Olympic Poultry.
Olympic Luggage.
The legal question arises with a woman named Carole Micklus. She
is the head of a nonprofit organization in Glassboro, N.J., called
Odyssey of the Mind, which holds ''creative problem-solving''
competitions for students of all ages. She once was the head of an
organization called Olympics of the Mind. Uh-oh.
''We were doing fine,'' says Micklus. ''Then, at the L.A. Olympics
in '84, we had a bright idea. We thought we would tie in some of the
things we were doing with the Games. We asked for permission. That
was when our trouble began.''
The International Olympic Committee lays claim to the use of the
word Olympic for its own benefit and that of the various national
committees. In this country the U.S. Olympic Committee controls the
use of the word Olympic by federal law. The exclusive use of the word
was given to the USOC -- supposedly to prevent its misuse in
fund-raising -- by Congress in 1950 and reaffirmed in 1978. The law
was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 after a challenge by the
organizers of the Gay Olympic Games.
If the USOC owns the word, the USOC can do anything it wants with
that word. ''We got a letter saying that we couldn't use the name,''
says Micklus. ''Our attorney told us it would cost $50,000, minimum,
to fight the case. I have been around enough lawyers to know how much
'$50,000, minimum' can become. We changed our name.''
Olympic Fire Extinguisher.
Olympic Lock and Safe.
Olympic Hardware.
Is this Dodge City? Does the USOC send out posses of lawyers on
horseback through every town and ZIP code looking for transgressors?
Is there a battalion of Word Police on the march? I have seen the
Calgary Organizing Committee at work at the Winter Games in Calgary.
For two weeks before the Games, a local night spot promoted a
competition called the Miss Nude Olympics. But once the committee
stepped in, all signs were changed to read: THE MISS NUDE O-WORD. Is
the USOC that efficient? Do all of these 40,000 Olympic-business
owners in America keep their signs on a swivel, ready to change
''We don't go looking through telephone listings, no,'' says
Richard Kline, chief legal adviser for the USOC. ''But if someone
brings something up to us, we'll follow it up.''
Off the record, USOC officials claim they have no interest in the
Olympic taxidermies of the land. They mostly are interested in
competitions or fund- raising ventures that try to use the name or
the Olympic logo. This does not mean they don't have the legal option
to become interested. A threatening letter can arrive at any time.
The comic opera always can be brought to the stage.
''I got a letter saying something about all of this,'' says Eric
Chang of Olympic Cartoon, a store that sells Korean comic books in
Los Angeles. ''The letter cited some cases. I didn't understand it
too well. I just threw it away.''
Olympic Medical Clinic.
Olympic Pool Room.
Olympic Swimming Pool Service.
One more word on the Olympic word comes from Charna Halpern of
Chicago. She presides over a theatrical group called the
ImprovOlympic. Uh-oh. ''How does anyone own a word?'' says Halpern.
''If anyone should own this word, it should be the Greeks. I looked
it up in the dictionary. Among other things, it says the Olympics is
a competition involving theater and poetry. I told my lawyer to ask
the USOC lawyers, 'Where's your theater and poetry? I'll show you
mine.' ''
The real Olympics do in fact mandate theater and other cultural
affairs, but they are not medal events. Halpern stages weekly comedy
shows in which one improvisational group competes against another.
She has been in business for seven years. She has received a letter.
She is fighting. ''How can anyone own a word?'' she asks.
''I don't know,'' I say.
''If I can own a word, then I want to own the word the,'' she
says. ''I'll sue everybody. I'll sue The Tonight Show. Who owns
words? What is this, Wheel of Fortune? Can I buy a vowel?''
She says she has other news -- another letter threatening a
lawsuit. ''Have you ever heard of Budd Friedman?'' says Halpern. ''He
runs the nightclub The Improv, in L.A. and now Chicago. I got a
letter from his lawyer. He's threatening to sue me about using the
word Improv. Isn't that something? Two parts to the name, and I'm
being threatened with lawsuits for both of them. I don't care. I'm
going down fighting.''
Olympic Appliance.
Olympic Seat Covers.
Olympic Transmission.
I do not seem to talk to many former Olympians when I make these
calls. Maybe former Olympians know the Olympic rules. Maybe they know
the USOC. Henry Carr, who won gold medals in the 200 meters and the 4
X 100-meter relay in the '64 Games, owns the Olympian Deli in
Detroit. I do not hear of any others.
Why isn't a beefy former shot-putter sitting in a lawn chair in
front of the manager's office at every Olympic Motor Court? Why isn't
a former high jumper in charge of every Olympic Elevator Company? Why
aren't more Olympians involved in all these Olympic outfits? I do not
Olympic Jewelers.
Olympic Tropical Fish.
Olympic Insurance Agency.
''I liked the name when I was starting this business,'' says Joe
Zablocki, owner of Zablocki's Olympic Printing in San Francisco,
''but I was really intrigued by those interlocking rings. I used
three of them instead of five. Value, service and quality. Yep.
Those were the three things. Value. Service. Quality.''
Isn't that what most of these businesses are trying to say? Aren't
they trying to say that they are working with the Olympic ideals in
mind, that they're trying to be the best -- isn't that the hook? --
and not attempting to suggest an association with the real-life
Olympics? ''Do you still have those rings?'' I ask Zablocki.
''Oh, no,'' he says. ''I got a letter from the U.S. Olympic
Committee's lawyers a few years ago.''
Olympic Coffee Shop.
Olympic Driving School.
Olympic Flowers.
I don't know if I should mention the old Boston Olympics, an
amateur hockey team that used to fill Boston Garden. I don't know if
I should mention the singing group the Olympics, who sang My Baby
Loves the Western Movies. I don't know if I should mention the Camp
Clearview Olympics, in which I finished fourth in a sack race,
narrowly missing the coveted cardboard medal for third.
I mostly follow the lists. I talk with Olympic Fur Processors in
New York. ''Olympic!'' a voice shouts. I introduce myself. I hear
machines pounding in the background. I say I have only one question.
I want to know why the man chose to name his firm Olympic Fur
''Easy!'' the voice shouts. ''I am Greek!''
Olympic Optical.
Olympic Paint and Chemical.
Olympic Nut. . . .