The trouble started for Kate Grace, winner of the U.S. Olympic Trials 800 meters, and her sponsor, apparel company Oiselle, when Oiselle posted these photos on their Instagram account.
Sally Bergesen, CEO of Oiselle, told the Orange County Register that she received an email from the U.S. Olympic Committee informing her that the posts violated USOC trademark guidelines, requesting that Oiselle to take down all images of Grace and other Oiselle athletes competing at the Trials. The USOC official, Carol Gross, asked that Oiselle stop all “Olympic-related advertising” and take down images by “close of business” Wednesday, July 6.
“This is about USOC’s intellectual property, ownership of the terms Rio, Road To Rio, the rings—all of the branding they use,” Bergesen said by phone. “By using the caption ‘She’s heading to Rio’ and showing the branding [#RoadToRio, Olympic rings] on her bib, which is ironed onto her Oiselle top, they’re saying it’s akin to creating advertising, that we’re making it look like we’re part of Team USA and doing Olympic advertising. They’re saying that our reporting is advertising; we differ with that.”
Bergesen contends that Oiselle is simply reporting on an athlete they’ve sponsored for the past five years. With Olympic, USA Track & Field, and Nike (the only sportswear company that is an official USOC sponsor) logos plastered around Hayward Stadium and on the bib athletes are required to wear, Bergesen said there’s no way to take a picture of an athlete without including some USOC branding.
The offending images remain on Instagram and Oiselle’s Twitter page—one day after the USOC’s deadline—though Bergesen blogged that in the remaining four days of races, USOC trademarked images would be blurred out of photos and words like Rio, Olympics, and Olympian would not be used. She directed followers to individuals in the Oiselle community for updates and pictures, as USOC restrictions only apply to businesses.
Bergesen said Oiselle’s legal counsel is talking with the USOC today because they don’t want to capitulate to USOC’s “bullying” without legal clarification. She said she was not sure if other sponsoring companies with athletes at the Trials had received a similar request from the USOC, but felt the USOC was being “extremely aggressive” toward Oiselle in particular.
Bergesen has been a vocal advocate for the right of athletes to recognize the non-USOC companies that spend tens of thousands of dollars to support day-to-day training, that allows them to compete in the Trials in the first place. This isn’t her first dance with the USOC on this issue: she ran up against their rules during the Olympic Marathon Trials in February.
“We made a video that had Road To Rio in it. They made us take that out,” Bergesen said.
Other sponsors like Brooks, Saucony, and Hoka One One have posted photos of their athletes on social media, but the Brooks and Hoka media teams told me they hadn’t been contacted by the USOC.
Brooks posted this shot of now-Olympian Jeremy Taiwo after he placed second in the decathlon. The post has no caption, and the USOC trademarked words and images on his bib are indistinct:
Saucony’s post showing sponsored athlete Molly Huddle doesn’t show her bib, and its carefully worded caption avoids use of trademarked language like “Rio” or “Olympics”:
But Saucony also retweeted a Runner’s World post that showed Huddle’s bib from a distance, and included the word “Rio” in the caption:
Hoka One One posted this photo of Travis Mahoney and used the hashtag “RoadToRio”:
And Roll Recovery posted this composite showing athletes at various competitions with a caption that references the U.S. Olympic Trials:
The USOC didn’t respond to a request for comment, but the athlete endorsement page on their website says:
In order to ensure that unaffiliated third parties (those who have no official relationship with the USOC or “Non-Sponsors”) do not create the false impression that they are a Sponsor of the Games and/or Team USA, athletes endorsing Non-Sponsors should make certain that advertising, web sites, promotions, etc. focus on the athlete and his/her achievements rather than on the Olympic or Paralympic Games (“Games”). The USOC will not tolerate ambush marketing by companies that are not Sponsors.
And on the Q&A page:
Q: Can I post about my sponsors during the Games?
A: As a principle, accredited persons should only use social media during the period of the Games for the purposes of sharing their experiences and communicating with their friends, family and supporters and not for commercial and/or advertising purposes. Accredited persons may only post about their sponsors, promote any brand, product or service on social or digital media or otherwise use social and digital media in a manner that creates or implies any association between the Games or the IOC and a third party, or its products and services, if they have obtained the prior written approval of the IOC or their National Olympic Committee.
Bergesen says she understands the USOC’s position with regard to maintaining the value of trademarks, but takes issue with the fact that the neither the USOC nor its major corporate sponsors support athletes’ training, nor pay athletes for competing at the Olympics, but make vast sums from the event. “It comes down to how the money is spent,” she said. “I would be somewhat okay [with non-USOC rmarketing restrictions] if some of the money were getting to athletes. But the reality is, if it were not for small private entities who actually support athletes, you’d have a beautifully branded stadium with no athletes in it.”