American track and field athletes have launched an extraordinary protest against strict corporate sponsorship rules which forbid competitors from promoting any non-official Olympic brands for the duration of the Games.
Dozens of track athletes, including some of Team USA’s rising stars, have taken to Twitter to demand a change to the so-called “Rule 40” – which bans athletes from appearing for personal sponsors while the Games are on. Some even posted images of their mouths duct taped with the words “Rule 40” written on across them.
The International Olympic Committee says the ban is needed to protect official brands from ambush marketing. Over the past four years “top tier” sponsors, such as Adidas, McDonalds and BMW, have paid more than £609m towards the Games.
But athletes say they are missing out on a vital two weeks where their global exposure is enormous. Although some of Team USA’s biggest stars make handsome profits from sponsorship deals in the run up to the Games, many struggle to find enough cash to compete. American track athletes receive little government funding and are reliant on sponsors or their own cash.
Sanya Richards-Ross, a gold medal winner in Beijing and Athens, is one of the fortunate ones. She has deals with BMW – an official Olympic sponsor – and clothing giant Nike. But she fears that many of her colleagues are being priced out of athletics by the rules.
“I’ve been very fortunate to do very well around the Olympics, but so many of my peers struggle in this sport,” she told reporters in Stratford today, “And I just think it’s unjust.”
She added: “People see the Olympics, they see the two weeks when athletes are at their best. It’s the most glorious time in their lives but they don’t see the three or four years leading up to the Olympic games when a lot of my peers are struggling to stay in the sport. The majority of track and field athletes don’t have sponsors and don’t have support to stay in the sport. A lot of my peers have second and third jobs to do this.”
Only 2% of Team USA’s athletes, she said, had deals with official Olympic sponsors. When US flagbearer and fencing gold medallist Mariel Zagunis posted a recent tweet thanking official sponsor Procter and Gamble for flying her mum into London for the opening ceremony she was not censured. But a number of athletes have been told to take photos down from their public Facebook accounts promoting non-official brands.
The IOC said it had no intention of backing down over Rule 40. “A huge number of 10,500 athletes who are here would understand why we are doing this,” said IOC spokesman Mark Jones. “For one month, we ask them not to endorse products not related to the Olympics that don’t actually give money back to the movement.
But other athletes have supported the Team USA protestors’ demands. Ed Moses, Olympic hurdles champion in 1976 and 1984, said his earning power had been much higher in his heyday than any American track and field athlete was earning today.
"Track and field has fallen behind a lot of the professional sports," he said. "In 1983, I was making more than professional NFL quarterbacks in the United States, being an amateur athlete. There is nobody in track and field who can even get close to those guys now, not even one person."