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Social Media Fail #4: The IOC and the Forty Thieves

28 Dec
Ellie Arroway

#NBCfail – Decision to delay Olympics until Prime Time was infuriating.

Back in August, when after a delay of about 5 hours I finally got to see Usain Bolt win the Olympic 100m, I mocked-up this picture as a means of expressing my extreme annoyance with NBC for their thoroughly aggravating decision to tape delay broadcast of key Olympic events so that advertisers had the benefit of prime time TV ratings.

Every other nation under the sun gets the Olympics live, but U.S. viewers had to wait.  I have spent many years in advertising and I understand commercial realities very well, but that doesn’t make it any more palatable to have to choose between either watching the biggest sporting event in my hometown’s history on a choppy live stream, or watching on TV after a wait of several hours.

Also in August, I wrote a long blog post about how I had struggled to buy any of the Team GB merchandise that their twitter stream was constantly encouraging us to buy.  Apparently, licensing agreements don’t take account of Brits living outside Britain.  If I live in the US, I can buy TeamUSA and….that’s it.  I supported TeamUSA pretty much throughout the Olympics but, when all’s said and done, I’m a Brit.

Having already moaned online about those two commercially motivated pet peeves, I guess you’d have thought that, if I had a commercial ax to grind about the Olympics I’d have covered it already.  Well, think again.

The most annoying thing about the manner in which commercial arrangements at the Olympics seemed to be more self-serving that they should have been didn’t even impact me directly.  It did however impact the athletes.

Way back in the mists of time, the IOC in its wisdom published ‘Rule 40’.  It was a sensible rule, designed to maintain (to as great a degree as possible) the idea that the athletes should compete for the glory of sport and of international relations rather than for any shallow commercial reasons.

Abrahams (l) and Lindsay in Chariots of Fire (1981)

Harold Abrahams (l) and Lord Andrew Lindsay compete in the
‘Trinity Great Court Run’ in the film Chariots of Fire (1981)

In preparing for the Paris Olympics of 1924, British hurdler Lord Lindsay practiced by placing glasses of champagne on hurdles, which he then tried to “brush but not spill” as he practiced.  But those days have gone.

In their place, we have a world ushered in by another 1924 athlete, Harold Abrahams, the first high profile British athlete to hire a professional coach to help him prepare, and for which he came under a significant degree of pressure at the time.  Those who have seen the film Chariots of Fire will of course be familiar with this story.

Fast forward some 90 years to London 2012.  With very few exceptions, almost every athlete at the games is reliant to a greater or lesser extent on commercial sponsorship.  And while it is true that a small percentage of the athletes in London will have made a small fortune over the years through their success in a high profile discipline, the majority will train just as hard, practice just as long, and prepare just as much, and will do so on a shoestring budget.

For many sportsmen and women around the world, and particularly in the U.S. where competition is so fierce and funding from the USOC is nonexistent, qualifying for the Olympics is the crowning glory of their career.  Most will compete with dreams of making the final, winning a medal, but without any real hope.  So what makes them do it when the cost is so high and the possible agony of defeat so real?

In most cases it is the belief, the determination, and even the sheer bloody-mindedness that on the day, irrespective of past results or personal bests they will somehow find it within themselves to produce something superhuman.  And it is the hours that they put in on the practice field, in the gym or on the track that gives substance to this dream.

Without their sponsors, their endorsements, their commercial relationships they would have no hope because they would not be there, unable to devote such a massive amount of their time and effort to chasing something so virtually unattainable.

The sponsors, in return for the support they give, ask for commercial exposure.  In the case of most sponsors, athletes are not allowed to display logos on their uniforms, or suits, or other equipment, so they have to try to live up to their end of the bargain in other ways.  And in London, that is the point at which Rule 40 slapped them in the face.

Nick SymmondsAmongst other things, Rule 40 effectively prohibited them from mentioning their sponsors on Social Media, except if that sponsor was an official partner of the 2012 games.  Some got around it with a bit of creativity of course, but for the most part the gag was effective and total.

Visa was a London 2012 sponsor, but if an athlete had been sponsored by MasterCard they couldn’t mention it.  Reebok sponsored London 2012 as well, so if you were sponsored by Nike, fuggeddaboutit.

A number of high profile Olympians, notably 800m finalist Nick Symmonds and 400m Gold Medalist Sanya Richards-Ross, were very active in pushing the envelope, and indeed pushing the case for Rule 40 to be at very least re-examined.  And their voices were not alone.

The hashtags #Rule40 and #WeDemandChange got significant exposure during and immediately after the Olympics, but as far as I can tell it has now largely been forgotten.  It will undoubtedly resurface sometime between now and Rio 2016 and, when it does, I hope the IOC take a more reasonable approach than they did in London.

Everyone with an once of common sense will appreciate that the Olympic Games is now a commercial venue as much as a sporting one, and that the money generated by official sponsorship is critical to a well run global event.  But a wholesale ban such as that enshrined in Rule 40 is unjust.  There has to be some middle ground and the IOC should step up to the plate and discuss this issue with a view to resolving it satisfactorily well in advance of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.

In the meantime, the IOC’s intransigence means it makes my list of the top Social Media Fails of 2012.

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