Olympians tiptoe around sponsorship ban


Published: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 at 4:18 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 at 4:18 p.m.

Sochi, Russia

Want to see the glasses and goggles that aerials skier Lydia Lassila and snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis wore at the Sochi Olympics? If you go to the website of the company that manufactures their eyewear, you might be in for a shock.

On the Australian section of Bolle.com, photos of Lassila, Jacobellis and other competitors at the Sochi Games have been digitally blurred to obscure their faces.

This isn't a throwback to the days when Soviet propaganda chiefs airbrushed people out of photos. It's an extreme application of regulations meant to make sure that companies such as Bolle, which do not sponsor the Olympics, don't get to advertise off the back of them.

So the Olympics are a Pepsi-free zone, because Coca-Cola is an Olympic sponsor. In Sochi's Olympic Park, only Visa cards work for payments or in ATMs, again because Visa is a sponsor. At one Sochi venue, an Olympic worker even slapped a white sticker over the Dell logo on a journalist's laptop, because the computer manufacturer isn't an Olympic sponsor.

For Olympians, the dense and confusing thicket of rules severely restricting advertising is a serious issue. In theory, Olympians could be disqualified if they use the games to plug non-approved brands. The International Olympic Committee even holds athletes responsible for how their sponsors behave outside the Olympic bubble.

Rule 40 of the IOC charter states: "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 rule means athletes cannot allow their images to be used for any commercial advertising, whether Olympic-related or not, for the duration of the blackout period. Even physical advertising such as billboards and magazines are covered, though it's not clear how that would work logistically.

Pandora, the jewelry company that sponsors U.S. figure skaters Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold, isn't an Olympic sponsor. It has had to put on hold an advertising campaign it prepared with Gold and to stop running magazine ads that showed Wagner, their agents said.

For Sochi, the rule applies from nine days before the opening ceremony until three days after the closing.

While the IOC has steadfastly defended the policy, the committee appears willing to consider changes in the future.

"It's up for discussion and debate," IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. "It's an open issue at the games. We'll discuss it with all the stakeholders."

Figure skater Gold left one of her favorite jackets at home because it was made by Pandora. She said she did not want to risk falling foul of the "very frightening" thicket of rules.

The U.S. team "gave me clothes and those are the clothes I'm going to wear, you know? If they give me a certain type of water, that's the water I'm going to drink. You really just can't risk it," she said.

The IOC's top global sponsors pay up to $100 million each for exclusive four-year deals. Adams said the IOC is redistributing $5 billion in commercial revenues over the current four-year cycle to national Olympic bodies, international federations and organizing committees.

Olympians tread carefully. When a reporter asked U.S. snowboarder Faye Gulini to name her sponsors, she replied: "Am I allowed to say? I don't really think I am."

So she asked a team official: "I'm not allowed to talk about sponsors, right?"

"Not under Rule 40. Not specific sponsors," came the response.

The Australian wing of Bolle felt it necessary to blur out the faces of winter Olympians on its web site. "It's disappointing not to be able to send messages of support for our athletes and teams," spokeswoman Fiona Marty said. "But whilst Rule 40 exists, then we will abide by these restrictions to protect our athletes from repercussions."

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