Stickers, Tweets, and Anonymous Billboards: The Campaign Against Rule 40

As the rules governing Olympics advertising kicks in, some athletes and sponsors are speaking out

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Stickers, Tweets, and Anonymous Billboards: The Campaign Against Rule 40

As thousands of fans gathered in Eugene, Oregon earlier this month for the Track and Field Olympic Trials, the media spectacle presented the rare opportunity for a sport that only really sparks the public imagination once every four years. And an anonymous group of advocates tried to capture that fleeting attention with a flashy campaign to highlight an ongoing fight: the battle over Rule 40, the strict guidelines that govern Olympics-related advertising.

During the ten days of the trials, giant yellow billboards rolled around Eugene proclaiming: “Good luck, you know who you are, on making it you know where.” Fans wore stickers and t-shirts that read, “Running shirt: #rule40 violation free sportswear.” The slogans are meant to poke fun at rules limiting the use of words like “Olympics” and rules that dictate what brands and logos an athlete can wear. And if you’re confused by the slogans, well, the reasoning goes, then maybe that will push you to find out more.

It’s not clear who exactly is behind this anti-Rule 40 campaign, which is prolific online and on Twitter. Organizers said, by email, that “the creators of need to stay anonymous” to avoid any backlash and to keep the focus on the issue. It seems likely, though, the effort is backed by a handful of athletes and sponsors who have been critics over the years and who stand to benefit from potential changes. What is clear, whoever is backing this particular effort, is that track in the U.S. finds itself in the midst of what Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden called “an open revolt” over money.

“I would like to see Rule 40 totally done away with,” said Nick Symmonds, the six-time 800m national champion and a very vocal critic of track and field’s compensation structure.

(What is this all-important Rule 40 anyway? Click here for Paste’s Rule 40 explainer.)

Traditionally, large companies like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola pay large sums of money, around $100 million, for exclusive rights as Olympic advertising partners. (Smaller companies pay $20-60 million for varying levels of sponsorship.) This arrangement is preserved via the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) extensive rules. Rule 40 creates a blackout period for five weeks around the Olympics, meaning that as of today, July 27, no Olympic athlete can appear in advertising for any company that isn’t an official Olympic partner. Social media, like Facebook posts, Tweets, or blogs, count as advertising.

In effect, this makes it hard for athletes to market themselves during the one time people actually care about their sports. The Olympics is when athletes finally get to earn their keep, prove their worth to their sponsors, and cash in on their hard work. Understandably, some of them aren’t happy about the arrangement.

“I have a responsibility to [runningwear sponsor] Brooks to let people know who got me on to the Olympic team. It wasn’t any of the Olympic partners,” said Symmonds, before the Olympic Trials. (Unfortunately, Symmonds isn’t going to have that problem this year. An injury kept him out of the trials and the two-time Olympian will not be competing in Rio, after finishing fifth in London.)

“There’s zero visibility for us,” said Sally Bergesen, CEO of Oiselle, a women’s clothing company that sponsors female runners. “And there’s zero visibility for our Olympic athletes to talk about us.”

In 2012, complaints reached a crescendo — particularly because of gray areas around social media and internet postings as people tried to push the boundaries of the rules. Symmonds, notably, posted a tweet of a shrub cut in the shape of a Nike swoosh — Nike, his sponsor at the time, is not an official Olympic partner — with the comment: “Spent the day at my fav sponsor’s hospitality. Won’t name them so as not to violate #Rule40. Also, interesting shrub.”

The International Olympic Committee listened to those complaints and last year announced some rule changes for Rio 2016.

This summer, for the first time ever, non-partner companies will be able to advertise during the five-week blackout period — as long as they follow certain rules put in place by the national governing bodies. In the U.S., those revised rules meant companies had to submit all content back in January for approval, must run the campaign in some form continuously from March, and couldn’t imply a false connection with the Olympics — words like “Rio,” “Games,” “Olympics,” “Gold,” or “Medal” aren’t allowed, and identifying someone as an Olympian requires also listing other biographical accomplishments.

Still, the change has meant more companies, more sponsors, and (maybe) more money available.

The Michael Phelps’ Under Armour ad where he swims through a darkly lit pool with dramatic music about “the last goodbye” playing in the background was made under these new rules. Under Armour would not have been allowed to run Phelps’ ad during previous Olympics. Now, the company is able to make the most out of its investment not just in Phelps, but also in the USA women’s gymnastics team and hundreds of other athletes it sponsors. The Olympics are never mentioned in the Phelps’ video, but, well, you get the idea anyway.

“We’re extremely excited and supportive,” said Peter Murray, Under Armour’s vice president of global brand and sports marketing. He said he has no complaints about the approval process they went through and it’s understandable the IOC and the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) need to protect their intellectual property in order to raise enough money to fund their programs. (USOC associate director of communications Jon Mason said it costs about $40,000/athlete to send someone to the Olympics, once you factor in gear, coaches, physical therapists and masseuses, and training facilities.)

Not everyone thinks things are better, though.

“It’s positive that they listened,” said Lashinda Demus, 2012 400m hurdle Olympic silver medalist, “but it didn’t really change anything.”

Demus, Symmonds, and Bergesen all list the same problems they see with the new rules: requiring ads to be run continuously isn’t feasible for smaller companies with limited budgets; producing all materials in advance, including social media posts, isn’t realistic for those same companies; and no one knows in January who’s going to make the Olympic team anyway — though Mason points out this is simply a challenge with any Olympic advertising, including for partner companies. But the biggest complaints about Rule 40 are around restrictions over images or words that could, theoretically, be associated with the Olympics.

Bergesen has even argued that the way the rules are written prohibits her from simply tweeting congratulations to an athlete or “Good luck in Rio!” She has taken to calling the Olympics “the Big Event in Brazil.” It’s a euphemism the anonymous anti-#Rule40 campaign has adopted.

In truth, the fight over Rule 40 has simply become a shorthand for a larger war about athlete income, sponsorship, and who owns (and is owed) what. Symmonds, who also co-owns a caffeinated running gum company, waged a losing battle in court over the USOC’s limits on what kinds of companies’ logos can be displayed on athlete’s uniforms. And he’s been pushing a campaign online called #OwnYourSkin. He auctioned off space on his shoulder for a temporary tattoo to T-Mobile for $21,800, but had to cover up the tattoo at some races.

At the Track and Field Trials, Oiselle found itself again in the news when it posted photos on Facebook and Instagram of athlete Kate Grace after she won the women’s 800m race. According to Bergesen and a widely-circulated Facebook post written by Grace’s boyfriend, the company received a cease and desist letter asking them to take down the photos, because the copyrighted Olympic Trials logo, displayed on Grace’s numbered bib, was visible.

The Seattle Times wrote a story about Grace headlined “Rule 40 is Ridiculously Restrictive.” But the complaint in this case was not about the five-week blackout period, but rather about debates over copyright and the reasonableness of banning personal photos taken at large public events.

The photos have not been taken down. The USOC did not respond to questions about how they are treating the matter.

Bergesen said she told USOC officials the company would comply moving forward. Mason has said in the past that the organization simply doesn’t have the resources to be monitoring every tweet from every athlete or sponsor in real-time, and that’s not realistic. However, the USOC does have to preserve its copyrights, granted to it by the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act, in order to raise funds, since it receives no government funding.

Demus and Symmonds believe that money raised should be split with the athletes, since they’re doing the work. “You should get paid for being in the Olympics,” said Demus.

Some changes have been made to pay athletes. USA Track and Field pays $10,000 to each athlete who makes the Olympic team—a recent development—and the USOC pays bonuses of $10,000, $15,000 and $25,000 for bronze, silver, or gold. Of course, that’s not nearly enough to live on or fund an elite athletic career. A post by Bergesen on the Oiselle blog argues it takes nearly $300,000 to develop an Olympic-caliber athlete over the four years.

It’s not a coincidence that in that same blog post she called on the fans of the sport to “be the loophole” to Rule 40. The non-Olympic partner sponsors can’t post about their Olympic athletes, and the athletes can’t post about their non-partner sponsors. But the fans can post whatever they want, the fans can educate themselves and rally around these campaigns — and it’s not bad publicity for Oiselle in the process. That’s exactly the gray area in the new rules, the issues that are still being figured out one direction or the other.

“There are opportunities for mischief,” said Frank Ryan, a lawyer for DLA Piper who has worked on sponsorship and media deals for the IOC, national governing bodies, and corporate sponsors. But who’s going to cause that mischief? You?