IOC rules at Sochi go too far with ban on black armbands

Don’t make a fuss: the Ukrainian women’s ski relay team celebrate their win at Sochi. Dmitry Lovetsky/AP

During the Sochi Games, much has been written about “ambush marketing”, and its applications at, and around, the Olympics. At Sochi2014, there have already been many examples of non-sponsors exploiting the worldwide interest in the Games, from Audi’s (or an Audi fan’s) use of the misfiring rings at the opening ceremony to Zippo’s claim to have “saved the Olympics” during the torch relay.

These spontaneous responses to real-time events have demonstrated how the commercial rights associated with the Games are being protected. The official sponsors are paying huge sums of money to be linked with the Olympics; they do not want their association with the “greatest show on earth” to be “ambushed” or devalued, nor to see their own campaigns ridiculed or undermined. To that end, the specialist legislation introduced by states hosting the Olympics (for example, the relevant sections of the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006) is designed to protect the value of the Olympic brand – and therefore, the value of being associated with the Olympic Games.

These associations are, after all, highly lucrative; it was announced last week that Samsung is the first of the IOC’s Olympic Partner sponsors to renew their association with the organisation, at a cost of $200m for the eight years from 2016-2024.

These arrangements are necessary because of the IOC’s requirement in Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter that all Olympic venues are “clean” and free from advertising, and that athletes do not endorse non-sponsors’ products during the games period of 30 January to 23 February 2014, under Rule 40. Rule 40 provides that:

Except as permitted by the IOC executive board, 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.

This rule has led to some strange activities, likened to the airbrushing of Soviet propaganda, where some websites of manufacturers of equipment for Olympic athletes have had to resort to “digitally blurring” pictures of athletes for fear of falling foul of these regulations.

What is less well-known is that the prohibition on non-official endorsements extends to preventing any of “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda … in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas”, and that any athlete breaking Rule 50(3) is subject to disqualification.

Despite the widespread disquiet about Russia’s so-called “anti-gay law”, the threat of disqualification from the Games has ensured that there have been few overt protests and few uses of the pro-LGBT rainbow colours by athletes during competition. Rule 50, however, goes far beyond preventing clearly political statements – and it has had some surprising and bizarre results.

By the book

The request from the Ukrainian Olympic Committee that their athletes be allowed to wear black armbands as a mark of respect to those who have died during the current violence in the country was refused by the IOC. Such a demonstration was always likely to be perceived as overtly political, as it could be used by either side to claim support from the nation’s athletes for their cause.

Unless it could be stated unequivocally that this was a mark of respect for all of the dead from both sides during the Olympic Truce, it could be all too easily misinterpreted and misused for political ends back in Ukraine.

But it is not just those killed during political battles that cannot be honoured at the Olympics. It would appear that even athletes who have died whilst trying to reach the Games cannot be publicly mourned by their friends and teammates. Sarah Burke was killed just over two years ago whilst training for the ski half-pipe. She was a pioneer of her sport, and her contemporaries considered her instrumental in ensuring that their discipline was recognised as an Olympic event.

Some of her friends, both within the Canadian team and across the skiing world, would normally wear stickers on their helmets to commemorate Sarah and her role in gaining acceptance for her sport. The IOC, however, regard even this as a breach of Rule 50; the only badges that can be displayed on your body, your kit or your equipment are those of your manufacturer, your National Olympic Committee, and the Games themselves.

Whereas there is a clear (albeit contested) justification for the restrictions placed on ambush marketing, and the IOC does not want their Games to be hijacked by political posturing (except perhaps by the hosts themselves?), forbidding reference to an athlete who would almost undoubtedly have been a medal contender were it not for her tragic death is surely a stretch of Rule 50’s intended remit.

In combination, Rule 50, the terms of the athletes’ participation agreement, and the anti-ambush marketing laws in place at each edition of the Olympic Games amount to a powerful set of restrictions on athletes’ freedom of speech. The IOC has said it will revisit its rules on athlete endorsement in the future; perhaps it should also revisit the restrictions placed on non-commercial endorsement at the same time.

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