Rule 40: The Olympics’ Argument Over Athlete Compensation

Tucked deep within the International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Charter is a rule that has athletes irate. The Olympic Charter is a 105 page document which outlines all the rules for athletes, coaches, officials, and sponsors of the Olympic Games. When looking through the document, there is a small section that dictates how and when an athlete can make money from his or her performance.

The rule that is the center of so many problems between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and athletes is the Olympic Charter’s Eligibility Code, better known as Rule 40. To be eligible to compete in the Olympic Games, athletes, coaches, and team officials must promise to “respect the spirit of fair play and non-violence and to behave accordingly” as well as “respect and comply in all aspects to the World Anti-Doping Code”. This seems very fair and admirable. How could anyone be upset over this code?

Following the introduction to the Eligibility Code is a list of four by-laws that anyone involved in the Games must abide by. The first two by-laws state athletes must get the approval from the IOC and their nation’s National Olympic Committee in order to compete. The fourth by-law states these committees cannot accept or deny an athlete based on their financial backing. However, these specific rules are not the reason everybody is up in arms.

IOC President Thomas Bach delivers a speech on the even of the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics

It is the Eligibility Code’s third by-law that causes all the commotion. This by-law states “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”.

During a period starting nine days prior to the start of the Games and ending three days after the Closing Ceremony, athletes are not allowed to endorse any companies in any way. According to the IOC, no advertising means no commercial promotion of any kind including, but not limited to, traditional press releases, billboards, TV, radio, public-relations releases, in-store promotions, social networking, or blogging. This is because certain companies pay an unfathomable amount of money in order to become Official Worldwide Olympic Partners. The Worldwide Olympic Partners pay to put on the Games and in return get exclusive advertising access during the time period.

Athletes are angry about this because endorsements are one of the few ways they can make money during the four-year period between Olympics. According to the IOC, Olympic athletes are meant to be amateurs. However, these amateur athletes still have bills to pay and families to feed while they are training and participating in their respective sports. In order to do this, the athletes must rely on companies who are willing to pay them to speak highly of their products to the public. During the Games, athletes are forbidden from mentioning their personal sponsors in any way.

The IOC encourages athletes to be up to date on many social networking platforms during the Games. However, if they mention anyone who helped finance their journey to the 2014 Sochi Winter Games they risk disqualification and financial repercussions. It is not surprising many American athletes have simply decided to swear off posting on any social networks until blackout caused by Rule 40 is lifted three days after the Closing Ceremony.

If you want to know exactly how the Olympic Athletes feel about this rule, you need not look further than Twitter. The hashtag “#WeDemandChange” erupted during the London Games, and will undoubtedly be referenced during these Winter Games. Athletes were posting their personal thoughts and feelings about how and why the rule affects them and their families. One of the most famous posts on the feed was a picture of 100-meter hurdler, Dawn Harper, in her room with a piece of tape over her mouth with the words “Rule 40” written on it.

Obviously, this rule does not negatively affect such household names as Michael Phelps or Apollo Ono. However, it makes it very difficult for the athletes who are still in the process of making a name for themselves. Sanya Richards-Ross, one of the most outspoken athletes on Rule 40 during the 2012 London Olympics, believes for most athletes “It’s (the Games) not paying their bills. It’s constantly a sacrifice for them to stay in the sport.” However, supporters of Rule 40 like George Washington University Business Professor Lisa Deply argue “Some athletes won’t get sponsors whether or not the rule is changed. Those who are high profile enough will get it whether or not the rule is changed”. It simply raises the question of whether or not this policy is fair to lower profile Olympic athletes and their search for sponsorship.

Olympic gold medalist Maelle Ricker working with Gatorade prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

The Olympic Games provide the best possible chance for these athletes to make money from endorsements. Lauryn Williams, a U.S. sprinter during the 2012 Games in London, said “During the time period when we have the biggest platform to be heard, we cannot even thank those who have helped us the last four years... It also reduces an athlete’s value to any sponsor outside the scope of the IOC or USOC (United States Olympic Committee), making it difficult for most athletes to secure a personal sponsorship and make a living”.

The days before the games through the short time following the Closing Ceremony, is when people are still thinking about these athletes. While the games are out of session, the average person does not tend to remember who these athletes are. After all, we only see them for two short weeks every four years. Athletes believe if they were allowed to advertise during this time, they would be able to make enough money to allow them to continue to live and be able to train for the next set of Games. They would not be forced to have to decide between their dreams of winning an Olympic medal or simply putting food in their children’s mouths or going to college.

According to the IOC, Rule 40 does not restrict athletes from obtaining sponsors. Instead, the purpose of the rule is to protect the Games from “over-commercialization”. Rule 40 is designed to protect the sources of funding needed to put on the Olympic Games. They believe by having this rule, companies will still be willing to pay a premium to “ensure that athletes from countries around the world can compete at the Olympic Games, for the development of sport worldwide, and for the continued celebration of the Olympic Games.” The IOC’s main goal for promoting Rule 40 is to ensure the Olympics will continue in the future.

IOC president Thomas Bach shakes hands with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The IOC also states that athletes can still promote companies who are approved by the committee. This means an athlete can advertise for any Worldwide Olympic Partner or for any National Olympic Sponsors. Aside from this, their images may be used by the approved broadcasting outlets to advertise the Olympics. By advertising the Games as a whole, the athletes are promoting themselves to companies who might want to consider giving them endorsements later on.

Whether or not you agree with the premise that Olympic athletes are amateurs, Rule 40 does very much affect how the Olympics work. These athletes are people just like you and I, and must be able to support themselves. Likewise, if the Olympic Games are to continue, there must be some sort of financial backing. Both the opinions of the athletes and the IOC can be easily understood and are both valid arguments. Rule 40 will come up at some point during the 2014 Sochi Olympics. We will continue to hear about it until some sort of equitable solution is reached by both sides. Both parties seem very far apart on such an agreement at the current time. Do not expect this to be the last set of Games where we hear about it. No matter what, the argument over Rule 40 is not going away anytime soon.

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