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Jamaican sprinter Yohan Blake, who finished second behind teammate Usain Bolt in the 100-meter final Sunday, has fallen foul of the Olympic branding police after he wore a Richard Mille wristwatch during his silver medal run.
The International Olympic Committee said it will look into reports that Blake’s watch might violate sponsorship rules that ban athletes from brandishing the logos of companies that are not official Olympic sponsors. Companies such as Visa, Adidas, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola have paid up to $100 million each to be Olympic sponsors and benefit from their official association with the Games.
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Blake is only the latest athlete at the London Olympics to catch the attention of the IOC’s sponsorship officials, who have tried to crack down on anyone slipping in unauthorized advertisements into coverage of the event. The IOC required Team USA’s 800-meter track hopeful Nick Symmonds to use white tape to cover up a temporary tattoo on his left arm bearing the Twitter handle of one of his sponsors. Hip-hop star Dr. Dre provoked the IOC’s ire after he sent free pairs of his Beats branded headphones to selected athletes who wore them on TV ahead of competition. When some members of Team GB gave a Twitter shout-out to Dre and Beats, the IOC sanctioned them, telling them Olympians should stick to wearing headphones from official games sponsor Panasonic.
While on-air infringements have attracted the most attention, the IOC has been most active online, banning athletes’ tweets and posts to social media sites that mention any non-official brands. Australian swimmer Libby Trickett, part of the gold medal-winning 4×100-meter freestyle relay team, was sanctioned for a tweet promoting her sponsor Inner Nutrition, and the IOC forced Leo Manzano, the 1,500-meter silver medal winner for Team USA, to take down pictures of running shoes and comments about their performance from his Facebook page. The IOC said such behavior was in violation of Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter, which bans athletes from using their name or image for advertising purposes during the Olympics.
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The IOC argues the enforcement is necessary to protect the Olympic brand — which consultants Brand Finance have evaluated is worth up to $45 billion — and ensure commercial revenue generated by sponsors can be used to fund sporting activities year-round.
But Olympic athletes have rebelled against the branding police. Symmonds, 400-meter gold medal winner Sanya Richards-Ross and others have lashed out at Rule 40, writing under Twitter hashtags #wedemandchange and #rule40 to criticize the IOC restrictions, which they say hurt amateur athletes.
“Only 2 percent of U.S. athletes are able to tweet about their sponsors because only 2 percent of U.S. athletes have USOC or IOC sponsors,” Richards-Ross said at a press conference in London following her 400-meter win. “So that leaves out 98 percent of my peers. And so we are disgruntled about that.”
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The IOC always has been a dogged defender of its brand and merchandising rights, but for London 2012, the British Parliament passed a special Olympic law giving organizers the right to bring court action for violation of branding rules, with fines of up to $31,000 (£20,000) for infractions.
But it is questionable how effective the IOC’s attempts at brand defense have been. Dr. Dre and Beats were not fined for their ambush-marketing moves. A London-themed ad from nonsponsor Nike passed without mention. Even Irish bookmaker Paddy Power got away with slapping up posters outside Olympic venues contending that it was “the official sponsors of the biggest athletics event happening in London this summer,” adding that, of course, it meant the village of London, France, not the British capital. The IOC has warned numerous athletes, but so far, none has been fined.
Compare this to the European soccer association, UEFA, which earlier this summer fined Danish soccer player Nicklas Bendtner $126,000 and handed him a one-match ban for flashing the waistband of his underpants — bearing the Paddy Power logo — after he scored a goal during the European Soccer Championships.
For television viewers, the Olympic logo ban can seem particularly toothless as it does not apply to sportswear companies sponsoring the national teams. An estimated 2 billion people worldwide watched Bolt defend his 100-meter gold medal on Sunday wearing Puma. U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps mounted the podium for his 22nd Olympic medal — making him the most decorated Olympian of all time — wearing a jacket branded with Nike’s trademark swoosh.
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