By the mid-1970s, iconic runner Steve Prefontaine had become increasingly bitter about the sacrifices he had to make to retain his amateur status and Olympic eligibility. The culprit, as every Pre fan worth his fanboy moustache knows, was the Amateur Athletic Union, an organization for the development of amateur sports which prevented its athletes from collecting race appearance fees, financial backing from sporting goods companies, or even a modest coaching salary—all in the name of upholding Olympic standards.
In Pre’s view, the restrictions imposed by the AAU were making it very difficult for U.S. Olympians to compete at the level of their international rivals, many of whom had cushy government jobs that allowed them to train incessantly without having to worry about where their next meal was coming from. Prefontaine, on the other hand, was living on food stamps during a period at the height of his running career.
"I’ll tell you, if I decide to compete at Montreal, to make all the sacrifices necessary, I’ll be a poor man. If you’re not a millionaire, there’s no way."
—Steve Prefontaine in a 1975 AP interview
Thanks in part to the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, which wrested power from the AAU, today’s best American runners are able to sign sponsorship deals without having to fear for their Olympic eligibility. Galen Rupp, arguably the best American distance runner, is comfortably ensconced at Nike’s World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. As a member of the Nike Oregon Project, an elite running club coached by Alberto Salazar, Rupp benefits from a hyper-regulated training program underwritten by the world’s richest sports company. (Eighteen-year-old Mary Cain, another Oregon Project protégée who was just profiled in the New York Times, sleeps with a small tent on her head to recreate a low-oxygen atmosphere.) The “Project” paid dividends at the 2012 London Olympics, where Rupp and his Nike training partner Mo Farah finished 2-1 in the 10,000 meters, respectively.
Because Nike was not an Olympic sponsor in London, neither Rupp nor Farah were allowed to give kudos to their corporate benefactor during the Games. A single Tweet from either athlete holding their Nike spikes could have put them at risk of (worst case scenario) being stripped of their medals. Nor was Nike allowed to use the image of its Olympic athletes to promote its products during the Games. This mandatory “blackout” is decreed by a by-law to Rule 40 of the Olympic charter which reads:
Except as permitted by the IOC Executive Board, no competitor, coach, trainer or official who participates in the Olympic Games may allow his person, name, picture or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games.
The rationale here is that the IOC wants to offer Olympic sponsors exclusive advertising rights while the Games are taking place, and prevent “ambush marketing” (read: the attempt of non-sponsors to use the Olympic brand for promotional purposes).
There is, of course, a good reason for maintaining this exclusivity. As Emmanuelle Moreau, the head of Media Relations at the IOC, explained in an email, the IOC needs “to preserve sources of funding used to ensure that athletes from countries around the world can compete at the Olympic Games, for the development of sport worldwide and for the continued celebration of the Olympic Games.” Over time, ambush marketing can undermine the IOC’s attempts to secure funding for such initiatives.
Rule 40 has itself been subject to something of an ambush, however, and during the London Olympics prominent competitors like track star Sanya Richards-Ross and hurdler Lashinda Demus were vocal critics of a law which they felt unfairly impeded athletes’ ability to market themselves at the time when they were most visible. Then there’s the distraction factor: It’s harder to focus all your attention on your semi-final heat when you’re worried that one of your Tweets (or a Tweet from your sponsor) might get you disqualified.
In London, the hashtags #WeDemandChange and #Rule40 took off. Athletes may not have been permitted to use their social media accounts to tout their sponsors, but nothing was stopping them from venting their frustration at not being able to do so.
The IOC seems to have gotten the message. In a recent press release, the Executive Board agreed to a proposal that would relax the rule and allow athletes to continue “generic [non-Olympic] advertising during the period of the Games.” The decision still needs to be ratified by the IOC, but if everything goes as planned, participants at next year’s summer Olympics will be able to freely promote their sponsors, as long as they don’t poach the Olympic brand while doing so.
What that means is not exactly crystal clear. Dr. John Grady, an associate professor of Sport and Entertainment Management at the University of South Carolina, says that even with the alterations to Rule 40, there will almost certainly be some confusion about what is permitted and what isn’t, especially in the nebulous realm of social media. But the IOC’s new stance indicates at least some willingness to submit to athletes’ demands, even if it is largely a preemptive PR move.
“Even if the implementation [of the amended Rule 40] comes out not as relaxed as it might seem now, I think it shows that Rio can’t risk another London,” Dr. Grady says. “They don’t want athletes holding press conferences with hashtags like #WeDemandChange at the beginning of the track competition, where instead of the winning, they were talking about the unfairness of the rules to the athletes.”
This unfairness, so one argument goes, is especially harsh on less well-known athletes, who only get any attention during the Olympics, thanks largely to those tearjerker mini-biopics that NBC splices into its coverage of the Games. The mother-of-four bobsledder who's taking her last shot at glory. The brilliant fencer who spent a year strung out on heroin. You get the idea. While a celebrity Olympian like Michael Phelps can easily afford to take a few weeks sabbatical from telling us how often he eats at Subway, for the athletes you’ve never heard of, the Olympic blackout effectively means they can’t market themselves during their 15 minutes of fame.
Nick Symmonds, a finalist in the 800 meters at the 2012 Olympics and a long-time advocate for athlete’s rights, said that although it remains to be seen how the change to Rule 40 will be implemented and enforced, recent developments were definitely “a step in the right direction.”’
“It’s about time just to allow the athletes to run their own business and court sponsors and take advantage of the few weeks out of every four years that they're actually in the spotlight,” Symmonds says.
When asked about the possibility that the IOC’s change of heart may have been motivated, first and foremost, by its desire to avoid another PR fiasco, Symmonds was optimistic that the organization cared about more than just image.
“I like to think that the IOC cares about the athletes,” he says. “Maybe it is part of a PR move. Maybe it’s part of trying to share some of the profits with the athletes who have made them filthy rich over the last 30 years. Again, I want to give the IOC the benefit of the doubt, and we’ll just see how they respond to some of the stuff athletes are going to do during the 2016 Games. If I make that team, I’m really going to push the boundaries of that rule [Rule 40] and see exactly what they mean by that.”
At present, it's difficult to predict how much boundary-pushing Symmonds will get away with. The IOC is still going to do all it can to protect its major sponsors, including Nike, which hasn’t sponsored the Olympic organizing committee since 2000 but will do so for Brazil 2016. Will the mighty Swoosh be okay with Adidas athletes tweeting their company’s logo after every race, when Nike had to abide by stricter regulations as a team sponsor over the past 16 years?
That said, don’t expect the Olympics on T.V. to suddenly look like NASCAR, or the English Premier League, where athletes have company names emblazoned on their chests. Emmanuelle Moreau wrote me that one of the chief purposes of Rule 40 was to “to preserve the unique nature of the Olympic Games by preventing over-commercialisation.”
We’ll see how that goes.