There is a social media movement afoot that is serving as a rallying cry to amateur athletes the world over to revolt against the IOC, and in particular its laws forbidding athletes from using social media to promote their sponsors.
A Twitter campaign has been set up in protest of ‘Rule 40’ of the IOC Olympic Charter. Rule 40 was set up to limit athletes “from appearing in advertising during and shortly before the Olympic Games. This helps prevent ambush marketing which might otherwise utilize athletes to create an association with the Games. The rationale for Rule 40 goes back to the amateur roots of the Olympic movement. The rule ensured that athletes maintained their amateur status. The Games have, of course, moved on and in the majority of sports professional athletes now compete in the Games. However, to prevent unauthorized commercialization of the Games; and to protect the integrity of athletes’ performance at the Games, the IOC places certain limits on how a Participants’ image can be exploited during the Games Period.”
It goes on: “ambush marketers have, in the past, used their association with athletes and NGBs to suggest or imply that they have an association with the Olympic Games. This undermines the exclusivity that Organizing Committees and/ or NOCs can offer official Games and Team sponsors, without whose investment the Games could not happen. The implication of an association with the Games through use of athletes is particularly powerful during and immediately before the Games. To protect against this, Rule 40 therefore places limits on the advertising activities of Participants, solely for the period of, and just before, the Games.”
If found in breach of Rule 40, “Participants who do not comply with Rule 40 may be sanctioned by the IOC in accordance with the Team Members’ Agreement (which provides for wide ranging sanctions, including amongst other things, removal of accreditation and financial penalties). Rule 23 of the Olympic Charter allows sanctions including, ultimately, disqualification from the Games and/or withdrawal of the Participant’s accreditation.”
The IOC and various NOCs also warned that any controversial tweets - for instance those even mentioning “rule 40” - or any other acts of dissent, could result in disqualification and removal of accreditation.
Often, athletes rely solely on personal and private sponsorship for the pursuit of their sporting careers. Many countries have no funding programs, while others offer only meagre stipends or scholarships to only the most successful. American race-walker, Maria Michta writes, on her personal blog: "I have no big brand corporate sponsor who gives me free gear, pays me a salary and gives me a bonus for making it to events like the Olympics...my sponsors are my family, my friends, my high school community, the family of race walkers around the country. My sponsor bonus comes from each and every dollar thrown in my bucket, every donation on my website. Those are the sponsors that I represent. And because of rules like Rule 40 and others I could not use the image of myself at Olympic Trials or the title U.S. Olympian in any pictures, posts or tweets to fundraise money to help pay for my travel expenses and get my family, the family that has sponsored me from day one, over to London to watch me compete."
So now they are fighting back. Athletes such as Michta, Sanya Richards-Ross, Brad Walker, and Leo Manzano have been active in a Twitter campaign under the hashtags of #rule40 and #WeDemandChange. It gathered pace during the Games. And now, that the games are over, and the athletes are free to write and speak how they like, it should gain even more momentum.
The problem is that the IOC has not changed with the times. It is clear they do not understand the new technology and the part it plays in athletes’ lives. They are yet to adjust to a marketing strategy that involves direct engagement between athletes and their sponsors and fans. Marketing and sponsorship has become much more interactive and open since the advent and popularity of Twitter and Facebook, and instead of burying their collective heads in the sand, the IOC need to adjust their own campaigns not only to benefit the athletes, but also themselves. They are in grave danger of being left at the starting gate. In Beijing, there were 6 million Twitter users; there are now over 500 million. But, they fear losing control. They feel they must protect the ‘integrity’ and future of the ‘Olympic Movement’. But, by implementing such draconian measures as ‘Rule 40’, it is doing more damage to its own brand than good. Through the use of social media, athletes have almost unanimously aided in spreading the spirit of the Olympics in a positive way. Fans and sponsors now - more than ever - feel personally connected to the Olympic Movement, and suppression of this behavior by the IOC is folly. The IOC has to work with the athletes in developing strategies to best take advantage of ‘new media’, yet still maintain the ‘integrity’ of the Movement.
Whether or not the efforts of Richards-Ross et. al, will bring the IOC to the table to discuss potential strategies remains to be seen. If they don’t, then the IOC risk falling even further behind the times. It’s time they recognized that the new way is not the old way. Communication has changed. How we interact with one another has changed. How athletes relate to their fans and sponsors has definitely changed. Failing to adapt, the IOC risks alienating athletes even further, and this will eventually be borne out in losing favor with viewers, sponsors, and athletes. The IOC must remember why it exists. I applaud the efforts of the #Rule40 and #WeDemandChange athletes. I just hope the IOC are listening...