Imagine your business has a longstanding relationship with an athlete, you’ve sponsored them for years and been a part of them rising through the ranks of their sport, they’re the perfect ambassador for your brand. All of that support pays off for the athlete when they qualify for the Olympics, culminating in them winning the gold medal. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for, the whole world is looking at the athlete you’ve supported through thick and thin. Your marketing brain goes into overdrive, thinking of all the ways you can celebrate the victory and get attention for your brand but there’s a problem… Rule 40 of the Olympic charter.

“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”

A controversial part of the Olympic rulebook introduced in 1991, Rule 40 is designed to protect the official sponsors of the games and prevent ambush marketing by companies that have not paid into the Olympic pot. Understandable when you consider Coca Cola is rumoured to be paying $250 million dollars a year to be one of the headline sponsors for the next decade. The games need to be paid for and with the bill for Tokyo 2020 looking to be north of $20 billion it makes sense to protect the investment of those contributing.

But what about the athletes? With the games no longer the preserve of amateur athletes and the rule extending to social media, the stars of the Olympics have long argued that rule 40 unfairly limits their ability to cash in on their success at what is likely to be one of the most important parts of their career. This is especially true for the smaller sports where the Olympics may be the only opportunity to market themselves on a global stage. Is this fair when they are the key figures that help the Olympics generate such high advertising revenue?

Athletes’ protests have caused the IOC to loosen their rules slightly since Rio 2016. They are now able to post a single ‘thank you’ message to each of their sponsors on Social Media but only if they follow some very strict rules. These include not using any Olympic properties such as phrases like ‘Tokyo 2020’, pictures from their medal ceremonies, featuring their Olympic team uniform or even personally endorsing any product or service. Hardly the marketing boost brands would have had in mind if they hadn’t featured at the Olympics before.

There are however some exceptions to the rules. The German courts ruled in favour of the German athletes in 2019 giving them more leeway to take advantage of their performances at the Games. Since then German athletes no longer have to clear their marketing activities with the IOC and have been granted the ability to use some Olympic properties (Tokyo 2020 for example) and use pictures of themselves at medal ceremonies and in their uniforms. We’ve already seen some examples of this at this year’s games. Whether we will see other countries follow suit remains to be seen.

The fact the IOC gives the individual nations Olympic Committees the power to implement the rules as they see fit makes it especially tricky for brands to navigate. With many brands sponsoring a range of international athletes and ambassadors they can quickly become bogged down trying to comprehend how various nations decide their athletes fall under the rules.

The financial power in play behind the scenes means it’s not likely there will be any major changes to Rule 40 anytime soon. So how can you navigate the Olympic charter and take advantage of the buzz of the games without getting your brand or more importantly your sponsored athletes into hot water?

As with many elements of marketing and Social Media the answer here lies in creativity. Alluding to their athletes performances with liberal use of medal emojis and the Japanese flag all while staying true to the letter of the law from the IOC’s perspective. This example from PaceUp Media client Nopinz is a great example of how you can talk about something without talking about something.


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If you’re a brand stuck trying to stay on the right side of the Olympic Rulebook or an Athlete who wants to grow their following and make the most of your audience then get in touch with