Have you been enjoying the Olympic cycling events? I've been riveted by the cycling performances in Rio. I hate to see anyone crash, but I especially feel for riders like Annemiek van Vleuten or Vincenzo Nibali going hard with Olympic gold in sight. Kudos to all the riders for making the selection in Brazil this year, congratulations to the medal winners — and a shoutout to Mara Abbott for oh-so-nearly pulling off a Hail Mary effort in the road race.
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Does the paragraph above seem offensive to you? If a company like Shimano, Canyon or any other bike brand publicized any one of those sentences during the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee would not only find it offensive, but would find it reason for legal action against the company and repercussions against the sponsored athlete, including potential disqualification from the Games.
On what grounds, you say? Rule 40.
What the heck is Rule 40?
In professional cycling, the UCI gets to make the rules. At the Olympics, the IOC calls the shots. In addition to specifying the rules of competition, the IOC also spells out exactly how the business-end works. Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter basically says, "if you are an official sponsor that gives the IOC lots of money, please promote the Games. If not, do not try to connect your brand to the Olympics or we will come after you".
That is not how the IOC phrases it, of course. The IOC frames the reasoning as two-fold: First, Rule 40 exists to prevent the over-commercialization of the Games. Ahem. And two, Rule 40 allows the IOC to fundraise by granting its 'Olympic Commercial Partners' exclusive marketing rights to not only images and assets from Rio, but even a whole slew of words and phrases, including words like 'effort' and 'performance'. Yes, really.
Now, to clarify, Rule 40 only applies to companies who sponsor Olympic athletes, which the IOC calls Non-Olympic Commercial Partners, and it only applies during the period of July 27 to August 24. For cycling, this basically means any equipment sponsor: Trek, Scott, Shimano, etc. Official Olympic Commercial Partners are big-money global brands, such as Coca-Cola or Nike, who have ponied up.
In the five-page Rule 40 explanation, the IOC specifics a laundry list of "inadmissible practices" for Non-Olympics Commercial Partners, including:
- Any express or implied written/visual allusion to the Olympic Games.
- Any use of the image of a Participant, taken during the Olympic Games, in combination with a company or brand.
- Any reference to a Participant’s role in the Olympic Games, or to a Participant’s performances during the Olympic Games or during any past editions of the Games of the Olympiad or the Olympic Winter Games.
- Any use of the “Olympic listed terms or expressions” alongside the Participant’s name or image.
And yes, those "Olympic listed terms or expressions" include words like not only Olympic, Olympics, etc., but also Rio, Gold, Silver, Bronze, Effort, Performance, Challenge, Summer... and 2016.
What Rule 40 means for cycling fans and bike brands
While Rule 40 is a major source of frustration for bike companies — and a source of nervousness for each country's governing body — it is just silly for cycling fans who have gotten used to following various bike brands' Twitter feeds for news and entertainment.
With the world watching, cycling brands have rolled out a variety of cool custom designs for their bikes, helmets and gear for the Rio Games. But don't expect to see Pinarello talking about Chris Froome or even BMC talking about Olympic road race gold medal winner Greg Van Avermaet. All the best brands can do is retweet what others post.
For its part, USA Cycling has asked all brands that sponsor athletes to be hyper-vigilant against doing what they normally do — talk about their stuff and the athletes they work with every day. Relaying the instructions from the IOC, USA Cycling has told brands that during the blackout period they should not use any images of Olympic athletes — even those taken before the Olympics — on their websites or in their social media.
Further, if a cyclist wins a medal, sponsoring brands have been instructed not to mention the rider in social media, tag the rider in social media or even reference the rider in any manner on social media. You know, just pretend like nothing happened and no one is watching the Olympics. Or, just speak in Orwellian code.
In cycling, brands are trying to skirt the lines while making sure not to endanger their athletes.
Does Rule 40 damage brands?
"I don’t see much good arguing the fairness of the rule," said Slate Olson, Specialized's chief marketing officer. "I can appreciate the IOC’s need to protect their investment, their properties, and their sponsors. But, for most in the cycling space, anything official is absurd to consider — the price tag is just too much to step up to that level.
"I think the rule is a bit out of date for how people take in information and how brands share. I’d like to see it evolve, but I won’t hold my breath. But, I would like to be able to show and celebrate the riders that we are proud of. This sport is personal and intimate, and the relationships we have with our athletes are real and strong, so it’s tough to be forced to go quiet in their support during one of the biggest events in their careers."
Executives at other big brands were hesitant to even speak on the record about Rule 40.
"Rule 40 limits brands from joining the social conversations as they happen — so a huge change in our marketing approach for sure," said an executive at a major global bike brand. "And since most people don’t know about Rule 40 or its impact on marketing and communication, I am sure they are left wondering why an otherwise active brand have not promoted a win or medal performance.
"Rule 40 not only hurts brands that support athletes, but also the Olympics as well. Brands can help amplify engagement for the Olympics, expanding the overall impact for the host city as well as the event itself. Imagine if Rule 40 applied to, say, World Cup soccer/football or the Super Bowl!"
Stages Cycling has 29 athletes at the Olympic Games, none of which marketing manager Matt Pacocha can talk about on the Stages website or social media.
"I can see the IOC protecting their ‘Olympic Assets’ as in specific Olympic terminology, logos and even imagery and broadcasts from the Games, but to have such harsh, blanket rules surrounding the use of the athletes themselves to a point where it really affects their value to the sponsors that provide for their non-Olympic-year pursuits is in no way fair," Pacocha said.
"Ultimately, though, Rule 40 is truly most unfair to the athletes. The Olympics have become this billion-dollar enterprise that the athletes receive no profit sharing from — when they are the true stars of the events and reason for their popularity."
What do you think? Should brands be blocked from talking about the Olympics and the athletes? Let us know in the comments below.