Throughout 2019 there was an increasing amount of athlete activism over their sponsorship rights and ability to maximize earnings. This is an important ongoing issue and is becoming even more prominent as we approach the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (should it take place at all this summer). The International Olympic Committee (IOC), under Rule 40, imposes restrictions on an athlete’s right to allow their name, image or sporting performance to be used to advertise during the Olympic games.
Since 2012, the IOC has responded to protests from athletes and continuously relaxed its stance on Rule 40, such as allowing National Olympic Committees (NOC) to grant express waivers for certain brands wishing to use an athlete’s image. In February 2019, German athletes challenged Rule 40 under their national competition law regulator, which led to the German Olympic Committee relaxing its rules significantly. The IOC is now leaving it to individual NOCs to interpret and apply Rule 40, which has resulted in many committees, including the British Olympic Association (BOA), relaxing their application too. However, there are still many restrictions. For example, recent guidelines issued by the BOA state that social media posts from brands congratulating athletes during the Olympics and athletes thanking brands using Olympic imagery is still forbidden.
The issue has clearly not been fully resolved and the restrictions imposed are still limiting the opportunities for athletes to fully capitalize on an event that is globally observed and does not frequently occur (for some athletes the one-month period of an Olympics might be a one-off pinnacle of their careers and their one chance to earn a significant income). The IOC stands by the rule and emphasised in a recent news conference that the current solidarity model benefits athletes with limited resources because it fairly redistributes the overall revenue made through the official sponsors of the Olympics. However, in the UK, several high-profile athletes including Mo Farah, Laura Muir, and Adam Gemili are in the process of challenging the BOA’s application of Rule 40, and it is unlikely to be the last challenge to this rule.
This issue could potentially impact the legal industry because any overturning of Rule 40, or even further relaxation in its application, may have a significant effect on the Olympic sponsorship framework. There may also be other complex legal and sponsorship issues raised by any change, such as whether the host nation’s domestic laws should be applied. If so, a nuanced understanding of the host country's competition laws regarding athlete sponsorship and advertising would be required. This ongoing issue will influence the advice given to athletes and brands on how they can advertise and utilise sponsorship in any new landscape.
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