Unless you’re a U.S. Olympic Committee sponsor like Nike, AT&T or Budweiser, you’re barred from using an array of words such as “Olympic,” “Rio,” “medal,” “gold,” “summer,” “games” or “2016” in an ad involving your athlete until after the Games are over.
I want to tell you about the Big Event in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s in a city that rhymes with Neo Bee Sin Arrow and involves a series of contests in the season after spring.
Winners receive awards made of a metal Californians sought in the late 1840s, while second and third-place finishers get prizes carved from less precious substances. Oh, and it’s all happening in August of MMXVI.
This is how you have to speak these days if you’re Sally Bergesen, owner of Oiselle, a women’s athletic apparel company based in Seattle. Two track and field athletes Oiselle sponsors will compete in the Olympics next month, but Bergesen can’t market them without engaging in the most obnoxious game of Password ever.
Unless you’re a U.S. Olympic Committee sponsor like Nike, AT&T or Budweiser, you’re barred from using an array of words such as “Olympic,” “Rio,” “medal,” “gold,” “summer,” “games” or “2016” in an ad involving your athlete until after the Games are over. You can’t even tweet them “good luck.”
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But if those restrictions seem annoying, what happened at the Olympic Trials a week-and-a-half ago was like Carrot Top scratching a chalkboard. It took place shortly after Kate Grace won the 800 meters despite never before reaching the podium in a national meet.
After the upset victory, Oiselle posted an Instagram picture of Grace, who was wearing an Oiselle race jersey with her name and number ironed on, with a caption that included the words “She’s going to RIO!”
Another pic posted to Oiselle’s Instagram account showed Grace holding an American flag, this time with a caption that read “@fastkate, now an Olympian with all the heart in the world right now.”
The next day, Bergesen said she got an email from the USOC telling her to remove all images of Grace and other Oiselle athletes competing at the trials. Why? Because they were in violation of USOC trademark guidelines.
Bergesen’s cynicism toward the USOC has been well-documented, but this stunned even her. This wasn’t advertising, she said — just a basic acknowledgement of a lifelong dream achieved.
But the USOC didn’t budge, and eventually, the photos came down. So who’s the primary victim in all of this?
Most likely, the Kate Graces of tomorrow.
Few expected Grace to claw her way into the Olympics, which is why a company such as Nike passed on sponsoring her. Oiselle, on the other hand, saw potential, and committed about $300,000 toward her training and development over the past four years.
Now, however, Bergesen’s business can’t capitalize on Grace’s Olympic opportunity, which is a pretty severe blow. But it also raises the question: What’s the incentive for non-USOC sponsors to fund future track and field athletes?
This isn’t basketball or football, where stars are marketable regardless of the date. This is the Olympics, where most participants’ commercial appeal disintegrates as soon as the torch is doused.
And if sponsors can’t get a return on their investment in the walk-up to the most-viewed sporting event in the world, what’s the point?
“The worst part of it is how it affects the athlete,” Bergesen said. “It makes their value go down.”
At the heart of the matter is Rule 40, which came under the spotlight after the 2012 Games in London. More so than ever, athletes were using social media to chronicle their experiences, and would often thank their sponsors on Facebook or Twitter.
But under the Rule 40 blackout — a month-long period designed to prevent a commercial connection between athletes and non-Olympic sponsors — this was forbidden.
And it still is.
It’s never simple when it comes to corporate sponsors and exclusivity rights. And if the USOC lets something slide in an Instagram post, perhaps that would create a slippery slope. But for some of these athletes who dedicate their entire lives to a sport, the Olympics is their only chance to make a big payday — and many of them can’t.
Just seems like the USOC is behind the times in that regard. In MMXVI, this shouldn’t be the case.