When Michael Phelps' Louis Vuitton ad was leaked on August 13, three days before its intended release, the record-breaking swimmer found himself in a promotional predicament that could have cost him his 2012 medals.
The Olympic Committee's (IOC) Rule 40 stipulates that Olympians can't promote brands that aren't official sponsors between July 18 and August 15, and the price of violation is high.
Although an IOC official announced that Phelps will be able to hold on to all 22 of his medals—since the swimmer wasn't responsible for the leak—Phelps' teeny speedo exposes a lot more than leg.
The New York Times reported in July that “some of Nike’s biggest track and field stars are complaining about rules that limit their ability to promote the companies that help them pay their bills.” The Times continued:
The issue has created attention precisely because the Summer Olympics occur once every four years, advertising experts said. Social media outlets like Twitter have given athletes and by extension their sponsors a voice that they did not have before. And in sports like track and field, the Olympics are one of the best opportunities for athletes to reach a global audience.
Athletes have taken their complaints to Twitter and Facebook. According to the Baltimore Sun, runner Leo Manzano told Facebook followers that he was asked to take down posts about his shoes—he's sponsored by Nike—due to Rule 40.
Middle distance runner Manteo Mitchell, who ran with a broken fibula, Tweeted:
Sports agent Evan Morgenstein applauded the Phelps' ruling and points out a loop-hole to keep in mind for the Rio 2016 games:
Olympians Nick Symmond's and Dwight Phillips' Tweeted about Rule 40, noting how little track and field athletes actually make in the games—particularly considering the amount of time spent training:
Coke, one of 11 worldwide sponsors for the games, spent $100 million for its official sponsorship.
But opening up Rule 40 could be beneficial for lesser-known athletes. The endorsement potential they could foster during the games could give them the opportunity for a career beyond the Olympics. Perhaps the instantaneously internet-famous, “scary synchro swimmers” or the gold-winning trampolinests could capitalize on their memes.
Tim Nelson, President of Tris3c, a Chicago-based ad agency, lamented to the New York Times: "the restrictions are 30 days every four years, but the athletes are living 365 days, and they’re not going to derail their long-term relationships. Without the Olympics, would track and field be commercially viable?”
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