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.

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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.


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March 21, 2016 — Allyson Ely

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