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March 21, 2016

Birds Eye View: Rule 40 Explained

Rule 40! It’s happening. There’s been a lot of buzz online about it – and a lot of confusion. My hope with this blog post (serenity now, it’s a long one) is to shed some light on what it is, why it is, and how it affects all of us – as we bump along that “Road to Rio.”

First some background:
Oiselle is a sponsor of both Olympic hopefuls and former Olympians. We are in the business of sponsoring T&F athletes. For many, their primary goal is to make an Olympic Team and represent their country on Team USA. Because we only support athletes, and do not pay money to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), we are considered a “non-Olympic partner.”

For Oiselle, and any of our athletes lucky enough to make the Team, Rule 40 will play a significant role in our joint Olympic experience. Established by both the IOC and USOC, Rule 40 is designed to protect the financial and intellectual property assets of the Olympic Games and its sponsors by limiting what the athletes, and non-Olympic partners, can do and say.

My recent tweet got you guys got fired up. And for good reason. It just seems so crazy.

rule 40 2.png

So my goal with this blog is to unpack the crazy a little bit, and try to break it down. My goal is not to trash talk the system, but rather to educate myself and others on what IS the system, and if we don’t like it, get vocal about the change we’d like to see.

So here we go. A Rule 40 primer.

Not surprisingly, it all starts with money.
The Olympic Games are the most watched sporting event in the world. London 2012 set an all time record, with 219 million viewers in the U.S. alone. Olympic Sponsorship is established at both the international (IOC) and national levels (USOC). The sponsors of the IOC include a dozen or more companies, including Coca-Cola, IBM, and McDonalds.

The USOC or “Team USA,” sponsors, include such companies as AT&T, Budweiser, and Nike. For a full list of IOC/USOC partners, go here:

The IOC, the USOC, and all of the National Olympic Committees of other countries (NOC’s), have sold Olympic sponsorship rights for huge amounts of money.

It’s been estimated that the 'fully loaded' cost of a Top Olympic partnership totals as much as $1 billion over the course of each four-year Olympiad. With big dollars come big teeth – and the IOC’s explicit interest in protecting the value of what it’s sold. Their biggest fear is that businesses and organizations will take advantage of an undeserved (unpaid) association with the Olympics.

Rule 40 was created to give the IOC and USOC more control.
Rule 40 has been around for a while, but the rise of social media has created an uproar over its fairness. According to IOC documentation, “the general principle of Rule 40 is to prevent the impression of a commercial connection between any non-Olympic partner and the Olympic Games, the IOC, the Olympic Movement, the Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games, or the Participant’s National Olympic Committee or National Olympic Team.”

The way they’ve prevented this risk of “commercial connection” is to create a blackout period (July 27-August 24, 2016 for Rio) in which athletes and their non-Olympic sponsors are forbidden to talk about each other. The athletes may not thank their sponsors. And the sponsors may not acknowledge the athletes. This includes any kind of ad campaign, digital or print.

London 2012 became a Rule 40 tipping point.
London was the first Olympics where social media was a major force. Every athlete sought to document and share their experience. And understandably, they wanted to reach out and thank their sponsors for helping them get to the games. But under Rule 40, they weren’t allowed to do so.

Rule 40 explicitly tells athletes: “an athlete sharing information about, or commenting on, one of his or her sponsors on social media or on the athlete’s own website would be considered to be engaging in “advertising” under Rule 40 and would not be allowed.”

The IOC goes on to define “advertising” as: “Any kind of commercial promotion, including (for example) traditional press adverts, billboards, television, radio and online advertising, PR (including personal appearances and press releases), on- product promotions, in-store promotions, corporate websites, social networking sites, blogs and viral adverts.”

At London, athletes were incensed, “I can’t thank my sponsor on Facebook?”

And sponsors, “We can’t wish our athlete good luck on Twitter?”


London 2012 Olympian Dawn Harper speaks out on Rule 40

Social media has changed everything. We now live in a world where you, me, anyone is a media outlet. We all have the power to share, post, and repost. There’s a reason it’s called viral. It can’t be stopped.

So during London, a fire storm blazed. Athletes were enraged. The businesses that helped get them there were frustrated. So much so, that the IOC let the world know that they were planning to consider updates/changes to Rule 40 for Rio 2016. The update was released October 1, 2015.

The Rule 40 Update – this is what you call an improvement?
Unfortunately, what’s being positioned as an improvement to Rule 40 by the USOC is in fact just a tighter noose. While the update “allows” non-Olympic sponsors to create ad campaigns (for review and approval by the USOC), it also dictates even stricter limitations. (More on the ad campaigns in a minute).

What came to light just recently, for example, was the subject of my original tweet above. We just learned that as a “non-Olympic partner” our restrictions had been made even tighter than in 2012.

Not only are we not allowed to mention (tweet, post, home page, email, etc) the athletes we might have there, but as a “non-Olympic partner,” Oiselle (and any other business) is forbidden from acknowledging that the Olympics are even taking place.

We cannot RT official media (such as NBC Sports), we cannot wish Team USA “good luck,” we cannot use a long list of words, including Olympic, Olympiad, Olympic Games, Rio, Rio de Jeinaro, Games, Summer, 2016, Gold, Silver, Bronze, Competition, 2016, Effort, Performance, Challenge...” it goes on. Nothing.

This seemed unbelievable. So much so, that I had to talk with someone at the USOC this past week. When I did, the representative confirmed the above. And confirmed that this was the case for ALL businesses and commercial entities.

As Lauren Fleshman summed it up, “if you’re a business, it’s a problem.” Even if you sponsor athletes who are competing in the games…even if you are sponsoring Olympians, you are forbidden to speak of the games. It is the global sporting event that shall not be named.

Can this happen? Does it make sense? It’s happening.

Remember, the goal of the IOC/USOC to prevent the impression of a commercial connection between any non-Olympic partner and the Olympics. Yes, even if we sponsor the athletes who are competing. Even if we are simply RT-ing results or imagery. At some point, the IOC/USOC deemed “communication” and “information” as “advertising.” In future conversations, I plan to ask the USOC if we imprint “OISELLE IS NOT AN OLYMPIC SPONSOR” on every social media profile we have, whether that might solve the problem.

The Rule 40 update and creating campaigns with our athletes.
I first heard the details of the Rule 40 update at the USATF Annual Meeting in December 2015 when a USOC representative explained it to a room full of athletes (and a few brand representatives like myself). I so wish I had film of the presentation, and the interaction between the USOC rep and the athletes because it was one of those moments where you’re like, is this real life or a SNL skit? The new ad campaign guidelines seemed insane.

The update breaks down like this:
The IOC changed Rule 40 in order to “enable continuation of in-market generic advertising featuring Rio Games participants during the Games period, thereby eliminating a significant source of athlete dissatisfaction and disruption to athlete sponsors.” 

It allows non-Olympic sponsors of Olympic athletes to apply to advertise during the blackout period, using your sponsored athletes who may be at the games, as long as you meet the following requirements.

The requirements are:

1. Create your ad campaign, including ALL potential athletes who MAY make the team, and submit it the USOC online waiver application system by end of January 2016 (despite the fact that no one has been named to the Olympic Team in January).

2. Make sure that your ad campaign, while using the image and name of your athlete(s), does not include any of the following:

  • ANY Olympic or Olympic-related language, specifically: Olympics, Olympiad, Games, Rio or Rio de Janeiro, 2016, Summer, Gold, Medal, Silver, Sponsors, Victory, Medal, and more.
  • ANY congratulatory or well-wishing messages, such as “Good luck!” or “Go for it!” or “We support you!”
  • If the athlete is a former Olympian (such as Kara Goucher or Shalaya Kipp for us), you can list that they are a “Former” or “Two Time Olympian,” however, your campaign must “dilute” the value of this achievement by adding 2-3 additional achievements to the ad.

Finally, the ad campaign must begin running, continuously, no later than March 27, 2016 (again, consider that only the marathon teams have been selected at this point) through the Summer Games. The explicit reason is to ensure that non-Olympic sponsors don’t receive a timing benefit by running their ad only when the Olympics are taking place.

Print and social media campaigns are treated separately and evaluated on a case by case basis.

What happens if the rules are broken?
I’ve been asked by a lot of people what happens if we just ignore the rules? It really depends on the situation. If we have athlete(s) competing, the consequences could be dire. In London 2012, Michael Phelps got in some hot water with the IOC/USOC. One of his sponsors, Luis Vuitton, leaked an ad campaign using his image. He was threatened to be punished (credentials revoked or medals taken away), but it never happened as it became clear he had no control over the ad in the first place.

Honestly, it will be very problematic for the IOC/USOC to punish an athlete for sponsor behavior, but I would never rule it out. If we don’t have an athlete competing, we are subject to the same rules. For instance, Oiselle could not send a congratulatory tweet to @AlysiaMontano or @emily_infeld for a badass performance. It's going to be a long 28 days!

This is one of the questions I asked the USOC representative last week. I asked if ALL businesses are subject to the “pretend the Olympics aren’t happening” guidelines, and he confirmed it. Nothing can be said, referenced, celebrated. The repercussion? The USOC may contact you directly to remove your post, or could send you a cease & desist letter, threatening legal action.

What I find legally questionable is the “owning” of non-trademarked words and names, such as Rio, Games, Medals, Competition, Summer, etc. I plan to consult with a lawyer on this.

Our response to the Rule 40 update.
Oiselle prepared an ad campaign in compliance with updated Rule 40 and submitted it via the USOC waiver system by the deadline of January 27, 2016.

Part Two of this blog will address what happened next.



Joemarie | March 21, 2016 at 11:45am


It's time for us the fans to take the real meaning of the games back... We will be the biggest ad campaign antly athlete will need!

Stephenie Ellis | March 21, 2016 at 12:27pm

Am I subject to rule 40?

So what if I tweeted about an athlete and tagged Oiselle in the tweet?

jacquelyn scofield | March 21, 2016 at 1:27pm

Reply to Rule 40

That is okay, only brands are prohibited from tweeting. Fans can talk.

Monica | March 21, 2016 at 4:08pm

Are IOC and USOC sponsorships

Are IOC and USOC sponsorships open to all businesses or is this an exclusive partnership? I imagine it is cost prohibitive, but if you wanted to, could you be an Olympic partner?

Dan Steele | March 21, 2016 at 5:36pm

Enough is enough

This whole thing disgusts me. I think the friends of athletes and/or sponsors should pseudo-organize and take it upon themselves to tweet and retweet what the athletes and sponsors cannot. Create a defiant and unifying hashtag and go crazy with tweets and retweets. In the end, the reach would go far beyond what would normally take place.

Doug | March 22, 2016 at 9:17am


Fascinating blog. I wonder if it is okay for @oiselle_sally to Tweet congratulations, but not okay for @oiselle? And, would the IOC have an issue if a fan Tweeted: Way to go @emily_infeld, @oiselle athletes rock #Rio And, honestly, I understand these rules (however nutty they seem) did come from somewhere semi logical. As Sally pointed out the Olympics are basically an international, for-profit TV show. But man oh man, it is time for someone (not a lawyer) from IOC to come in with some common sense.

Anna Arnold | March 22, 2016 at 10:26am

Thanks for the breakdown of

Thanks for the breakdown of Rule 40. It hardly seems fair or legal that the IOC and USOC can appropriate words in such a fashion. I look forward to hearing what your legal representatives have to say about that.

Claire | March 22, 2016 at 11:18am



Kayli Hrdlicka | March 30, 2016 at 1:27pm

I understand the business

I understand the business aspect of the rule's foundation but feel like the rule has not adequately adapted for the current social media climate. It would seem odd that the IOC/USOC would not want people talking about the games and athletes' performances. What better way that reweeting and congratulating. It saddens me that sponsors are not able to congratulate and support their athletes when they reach the biggest stage possible and that athletes cannot thank their sponsors for supporting them every other day of the year, especially when sponsors feel like family. Would it matter if someone tweeted/instagrammed from a private account - such as from your personal Twitter vs Oiselle would you still be reprimanded?

Marketer | June 2, 2016 at 8:56pm

Non-sponsor brands have never

Non-sponsor brands have never been allowed to reference the games or use words like Olympic, this is not new to the Rule 40 update. Most simply did not educate themselves on it in the past and the formal outreach to them by the IOC/USOC was minimal. As someone who has advised both Olympic sponsor and non-sponsor brands for over a decade, I say without hesitation that the update really does create a great deal of opportunity for non-sponsors that was not there before. It is also a test, and if it goes well (I.e., non-sponsors play by the rules) we may see greater flexibility in the future. If there are problems, they will likely come down hard on non-sponsors, and potentially athletes. Not all athletes have the influence or savvy agent representation that Michael Phelps does so it's not out of the question for someone to be made an example of for non-compliance, particularly when the system has made concessions. Best of luck with your campaigns.

Molly | July 14, 2016 at 4:48pm

Rule 40

So just curious...where is Part Two of the blog?

Alec Riddle | July 26, 2016 at 10:54pm

Rule 40

When the Headmaster or CEO asks you to do something, the take up is dependent upon the respect that they have earned. The athletes, non sponsor brands and public have surely lost respect for the IOC, who focus on enforcing Rule 40 vs systematic and state sponsored doping. One can only assume that the official sponsors have bought into the IOC's game plan. The public do not have to adhere to Rule 40, so my bet is that the IOC and the sponsors will feel the wrath of the public's disappointment & lack of faith in the IOC board.