We all know—or should know—that Olympic athletes don't make a penny from that 17-day extravaganza of running, jumping, throwing, swimming, flipping, etc. That pisses two-time Olympian Nick Symmonds off. It should, especially when you consider that even though about $6 billion went through the International Olympic Committee's hands during the 2012 games, they just couldn't tarnish the vaunted amateur ideal by tossing some bones to the stars of the show.
Back in the day, the IOC made a bunch of rules to further line their pockets and keep athletes from compromising the hella loot they get from Olympic sponsors, including one provision that's been a battleground for some time, artfully called Rule 40.
Rule 40 says: "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."
As an athlete/business who depends on sponsors' money and goods to train full-time to get to the Olympics, that really fries Symmonds's meat. In a phone call, the track athlete explained why:
The Olympics is the Super Bowl of my business and I'm not allowed to work there. There's a blackout period before and after the games too, so for about a month, my sponsors couldn't use my image or my name, and I couldn't use any social media to say, 'Hey, thank you Nike [his main sponsor in 2012] for getting me to these games.' Why would a company sponsor an athlete when they can't use his image during the biggest month of his career? Sponsors know that as soon as I get to the Olympics, they can't use my image, and I can't say anything about their product or support. It makes it very difficult to court sponsors. Rule 40 inhibits my ability to run my business. I can't name names, but companies have used that as an excuse to stop the sponsorship conversation.
He isn't the only one. There have been protests about Rule 40 for many Olympic cycles, but in 2012, athletes unleashed a Twitter-storm with #WeDemandChange2012.
On February 26, the IOC executive board announced a widely publicized, but vaguely worded proposal to allow "generic" or "non-Olympic" advertising during the games. The proposal goes to a vote by the full membership in July, and if ratified, would be in effect for the 2016 Olympics. At first glance, this looks laudable, but IOC spokesman Mark Adams's niggling qualifier—"as long as the advert doesn't relate to the games"—leaves a lot of latitude for business as usual. For example, it sounds like an athlete would still be prohibited from tweeting a thank-you to a sponsor for helping her get to the Olympics. Does a photo of the athlete running on a track relate to the games?
Symmonds is skeptical:
This is a step in the right direction, but we've had no clarification of what this really means. It actually sounds like more of the same. 'As long as the advert doesn't relate to the games,' is very ambiguous. We have no idea how this rule will be written when it goes to the vote. It's one thing to say they'll relax the rule; it's a second to actually do it, and a third to enforce it. I'm not holding my breath. I know the IOC: They're very good at exploiting athletes. Nothing I've seen in my eight years of working with the IOC would lead me to think they've changed their tune. I mean, hopefully they'll rewrite it in a way that allows athletes to train full-time and court sponsors. In the meantime, I'm just training hard and we'll see what happens in July. It's very un-American to have the best athletes in the country working their butts off to represent the US at the Olympics, and not being able to make a living from it.
Photo credit: AP Images