Rule 40

The International Olympics Committee (IOC) has declared a ban on brands who are not official sponsors of Rio 2016 from tweeting about the games.

Under Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter, only named sponsors are allowed to use images, hashtags or even seemingly innocuous terms relating to the Olympics in their tweets, or any form of advertising.

‘Glory’ is banned, so is ‘summer’, and ‘games’ is a big no-no. It’s quite a ‘challenge’ for sponsors and athletes to work around Rule 40 without a lot of ‘effort’, and it’s all becoming something of a ‘performance’. These words are also off-limits.

The rule kicked in on Wednesday 27th July and will remain in effect until Wednesday 24th August, three days after the closing ceremony.

The media are exempt, but any brand which is not an official sponsor, including charities, plus the athletes, coaches and officials are subject to the sanctions.

Some of the reasons laid out in the Charter include:

  • To preserve the unique nature of the Olympic Games by preventing over-commercialisation.
  • To allow the focus to remain on the athlete’s performance.

The first point is heavy with irony, as it is the ‘amateur’ nature of the Olympics which allows the IOC to make millions off the games while the athletes themselves lose out.

Point two is also erroneous as the focus is being put squarely on the ‘favoured’ brands.

However, it’s the third point that gets to the crux of the matter:

  • To preserve sources of funding…

The big winners here are the official sponsors – Coca Cola and McDonald’s, but each pays an estimated £64million for the privilege.

Despite links to obesity, both brands remain, official sponsors, with Olympic chiefs arguing that both brands reflect the values of the Olympics by promoting active lifestyles to children through various initiatives.

Speaking to The Drum last month, Melinda May, head of marketing strategy and activation at the IOC, said: “McDonald’s and Coke are both about getting kids active, and they use the Olympics to empower youth, help them grow and mature and get active. And so we stand by these [companies] who help us spread a positive message.”

In fairness, both brands are long-time partners with Coca Cola has been a sponsor for just shy of 90 years, and McDonald’s for more than 40. There are other sponsors, such as Samsung and Visa, but none so prominent, nor so controversial.

All this means that the athletes competing aren’t allowed to thank their sponsors, many of whom will have supported (and funded) them throughout their careers.

And neither party is happy.

American 800m finalist Nick Symmonds is an active voice for athletes’ fairness and equality. He has twice auctioned off a section of his skin to a sponsor for a temporary tattoo of their logo. He also refused to sign the ‘athlete’s statement of conditions’, and tweeted a photo standing in front of a trainer-shaped bush bearing the logo of his then sponsors Nike while Rule 40 was in effect in 2012.

Closer to home, Team GB discus champion Jade Lally tweeted a good luck card saying: “How amazing is this! It’s for that thing ;) I’m doing this summer ;) in South America ;) #Rule40” When her tweet made BBC News, it was pointed out to her that ‘summer’ is also a banned word.

The ban has forced athletes and their sponsors to get creative with their marketing, and @rule40 – (outed as US sports brand Brooks) has produced a series of tweets, van billboards and ‘non rule-violating’ sportswear parodying the usual motivational slogans. Sentiments expressed include “it’s tough to shine in the middle of a (#rule40) blackout” and “good luck, you know who you are, on making it you know where”.

Still, their efforts are unlikely to make a lasting difference to the IOC’s guidelines.

A slightly different version of Rule 40 was in effect throughout London 2012, but most people forgot about it as soon as the Olympics were over.

This time around, there’s been more significant noise made, but against the Zika virus and the doping scandal, the outrage is unlikely to last beyond the closing ceremony. And while the official sponsors continue to spend millions for exclusivity, athletes and unofficial sponsors’ complaints are likely to fall on deaf ears.