LeBron James can afford to lay off pitching Nike products while competing in the Olympics during his off-season, but athletes like Sanya Richards-Ross, Nick Symmonds and hundreds of other Olympians don't have that luxury. Richards-Ross, a three-time Olympian and medal favorite in the women's 400 meters, and Symmonds, two-time Olympian and medal contender in the men's 800, are, like King James, sponsored by Nike. But unlike James, they don't receive a salary for competing in their sport. The Olympics are the equivalent of their NBA Finals and are competing there for free.
You might expect to see a tweet from them like this: "Hey, Nike, thanks for the endorsement deal and shoes so I could train for the Olympics without working full-time at Starbucks." Right? Nope, tweets like that are banned. Why? Because the official sportswear sponsor of the London Olympics is Adidas, and there's a ban on mentioning any brand except those that line the pockets of the IOC.
Athletes like Richards-Ross and Symmonds have been speaking out about the injustice of the ban, known as "Rule 40" (which makes it sound a little like something out of Brave New World). Symmonds posted the photo accompanying this article in June on Twitter with the caption: "Sponsors keep this sport alive. Lets stop making them feel unwelcome! Forever grateful to all my sponsors." This week other Olympians have been quick to join them, using the hashtags #Rule40 and #wedemandchange on Twitter.
The controversial rule (outlined officially in this 18-page document) prohibits Olympians from mentioning or promoting any sponsor during the Olympic Games unless that sponsor is an official Olympic sponsor. According to Richards-Ross, only about two percent of Olympians are sponsored by official sponsors.
The absurd Rule 40 has roots in the idea that Olympians ought to be amateur athletes -- a concept that ended famously, and irrevocably, with the Dream Team in 1992. No one wants to go back to an Olympics that exclude professional athletes. That fact makes it ridiculous that the IOC is so aggressive in enforcing Rule 40 on athletes' social networking pages.
It is one thing to regulate the visibility of brands on athletes while they are competing. One can see how that might lead to a practice known as "ambush marketing," where an athlete co-opts the event spotlight for advertising purposes, taking attention away from the competition itself. But to extend regulations to what an athlete posts on his or her personal social networking site is lunacy. How is Coke or Adidas or the Olympic Movement harmed if 1,500-meter runner Leo Manzano posts a photo of his running spikes on Facebook? They're not. And yet, the IOC brand police asked Manzano last week to pull a picture of his shoes off Facebook.
Manzao posted on Twitter and Facebook: "I am very disappointed in Rule 40 of the USOC as I just had to take down my picture of my shoes and comments about their performance. This rule is very distracting to us athletes, and it takes away from our Olympic experience and training."
Sanctions for breaking Rule 40 can include "removal of accreditation and financial penalties" and/or "ultimately, disqualification."
Symmonds told the Guardian this week: "These [official] sponsors have done absolutely nothing to help me be the athlete I am today ... For years my sponsors … have helped me train and compete and now they are made to feel unwelcome. This is not right."
"For Symmonds, 'literally hundreds of thousands of dollars' in coaches, equipment and travel over the years were covered by sponsors, so not being able to tweet a picture of his Nike spikes means the rules are going a bit too far."
Why does the IOC insist on this indefensible policy? IOC President Jacques Rogge said, "Our position is clear. We have to protect the sponsors because otherwise there is no sponsorship and without sponsorship there is no Games."
You can either have the best athletes in the world or you can have amateurism, but you can't have it both ways. The IOC is not only trying to have it both ways, but they are profiting off of what has become a $6 billion industry on the backs of the athletes, who essentially compete for free.
I'm thrilled that this movement has gained traction on Twitter and now, it seems, in the mainstream media (except on NBC, whose cozy relationship with the IOC and their official sponsors will almost surely, if not legally, prevent them from mentioning the Rule 40 controversy). Frankly, Rule 40 is a policy that is typical of the International Olympic Committee, a group of secretive, stuffy, corrupt and wealthy individuals. They stubbornly insist that they have the singular ability to promote purity, humanity and fairness throughout the world with the Olympic Games. This is top-level hypocrisy reminiscent of the NCAA, which rakes in billions annually through TV contracts and ticket sales while it bans student-athletes from making a single cent from their sport.
Competing at the highest level in the world requires extraordinary time commitments -- training five to 10 hours a day, year round, for many years in a row, plus travel -- making it nearly impossible to hold down a steady day job. Many nations subsidize their Olympians. The United States does not. This means athletes depend on sponsorships to cover their equipment and other expenses. Only the tiniest minority of superstar athletes, like Michael Phelps, are able to turn their Olympic appearances into a legitimate career. For most of the 12,000 Olympians competing in London, the events this week and next will be the absolute pinnacle of their brief athletic careers. All they are asking for is to be able to give a shout out to the sponsors who got them there.
The IOC is showing its true colors if it thinks that is too much to ask.
Ryan Quinn is the author of The Fall: A Novel. He was an NCAA Champion and All-American cross-country skier at the University of Utah. He now lives in Los Angeles.