The Olympics, adverts, social media and pro cycling

Dessin Pellos

Pro cycling is a nakedly commercial sport. The above cartoon by Pellos mocks the way the 1956 Tour de France consumes the environment with branding. Half a century later only the sponsor names have changed. Riders act as mobile billboards to sell Quickstep laminated flooring and Liquigas bottled gas.

However this culture is set to clash with the Olympic Games, now just four months away. One thing that didn’t exist in 1956 was social media and the International Olympic Committee has very strict rules in place about the use of blogs, Facebook and Twitter during the games. Here’s a look at the ad rules and social media guidelines.

Yesterday there was a story doing the rounds that CONI, the Italian Olympic Committee had issued strict guidelines to its athletes over the use of social media and more. But it’s not new.

Last autumn for example the US Olympic Committee emailed similar advice athletes on the “long list” for selection. Above all, these national bodies are parroting existing International Olympic Committee (IOC) guidelines.

Rule 40
This is a rule of the IOC and limits athletes and other participants in the Olympic Games from appearing in advertising during, before and after the Olympic Games, this year from 18 July to 15 August.

Any reference to the Participant, whether by their personal appearance, use of their image (or any representation of such image, whether two or three dimensional), name or sports performance (including performance at the Games and recent historical performance), in advertising will fall within the scope of Rule 40.

This includes standard advertising like TV clips and magazine ads. But it extends to cover PR appearances, corporate websites and blogs. As such a rider like, say, Mark Cavendish couldn’t appear in a Pinarello ad campaign during late July even if he wins stages of the Tour de France, nor even on the website of the Treviso frame-builder. Even tweeting “I love my bike” could be risky.

Rule 50

No form of publicity or propaganda, commercial or otherwise, may appear on persons, on sportswear, accessories or, more generally, on any article of clothing or equipment

This applies to bikes and clothing. If Peter Sagan starts the Olympic road race then officials will be checking his Cannondale to ensure the decals are not too large. In fact only one decal is allowed:

The identification of the manufacturer shall not appear more than once per item of clothing and equipment… …any manufacturer’s
identification that is greater than 10% of the surface area of the equipment that is exposed during competition shall be deemed to be marked conspicuously. However, there shall be no manufacturer’s identification greater than 60cm².

Which means one head tube badge and that’s it. In theory it also means you shouldn’t have the frame-builder’s name on each side of the down tube as that’s two mentions. There’s more, for example no more than 6cm² on a helmet or shoes for the maker’s name.

We’ll see how much this is enforced but break these rules you risk “disqualification or withdrawal”, the decision is taken by the IOC and there’s no appeal channel.

Social media
There’s a lot of white noise on Twitter and Facebook but amidst the hiss and crackle there’s plenty of interest. News breaks via Twitter and riders put information on their form as well as random things than can be interesting if you follow the sport. Unlike the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia the IOC has guidelines for participants. To summarise:

  • The IOC encourages athletes and staff to use social media but under tightly specified rules.
  • Participants should stick to the first person. In other words, stick to talking about themselves. Commenting on other athletes is not allowed.
  • Posting images is strictly regulated if from any Olympic venue or the athletes village. Video is banned, for example a rider warming up on the rollers before a race on the velodrome is out of the question, the same if someone wants to upload a video of the descents on the road race course.
  • You can’t promote a “brand, product or service within a posting, blog or tweet”. This might come as a relief for weary fans subjected to messages like “I won thanks to my shoes/energy drink/sunglasses” etc. But it’ll extend to riders thinking of putting pictures of their new bike online or showing a brand new aerodynamic helmet. This information that might normally be of passing interest.

This all marks a change from the usual commercialism of pro cycling. But if you think the Olympics are a two week festival of logo-free free sport… then you haven’t seen the games before.

Instead these rules are there to protect “partner” sponsors of the IOC and the local organising committee in London. These companies have paid (hundreds of) millions to have their name associated with the games and the last thing they want is rival brands on the scene.

British bank Lloyds TSB who will count on the rules to make sure the likes of Rabobank and Cofidis don’t crash the party. When the cycling World Championships went to Australia in 2010 the Swiss squad ensured a stock of Rivella, a Swiss soft drink, for Fabian Cancellara. The last thing Coca Cola wants is a potential medal winner drinking a rival product. Try that in July and his next tweet could promote Swiss Air for the flight back home.

All this means tighter rules for athletes. For pro cycling in particular this represents a change in attitude. Thinking ahead you wonder whether cycling will move to adopt tighter guidelines to protect core sponsors? But often the more control, the more sterile the image and the brands associated risk looking like paranoid corporate behemoths. Presumably the very thing they want to avoid by associating with the fun of sports.

32 thoughts on “The Olympics, adverts, social media and pro cycling”

  1. no frame branding! everyone in clearly identifiable national jerseys. is it just me or does this sound like it will be the best looking peleton yet (much as i acknowledge and understand advertisings importance in keeping the whole show going).

  2. Being from Vancouver, this reminds me of the Vancouver 2010 experience:
    The most extreme example I can think of was at a local community centre, where they hosted cultural events associated with the Olympics. The local coffee shop had to use blank coffee cups. Coca Cola is the only *beverage* that is allowed at the Olympics. And trust me, Olympic Committees take enforcement seriously.

  3. melbin_rider: yes, it should look good, as long as the route is lined in banners and fans aren’t charged to stand on the hill that features on the road race course.

    Megan Cooke/Peter: yes and it applies to the athletes too. They might be competing but there are rules on their own use of the words and imagery. Note this is why reigning Olympic road race champ Samuel Sanchez has a gold helmet to mark his title but note he cannot use the Olympic rings on his jersey etc.

    Prashanth Bhat: indeed, the lawyers and officials should get medals too, no?

  4. The Games are too big and too expensive, just ask the Greeks! But until ways are found to decrease the size, how DOES a country pay for it other than getting the multi-nationals to pony up the millions, unless they make the tax payers pick up the tab? As you wrote, those big backers don’t want to see a competitor’s name or product too many times, otherwise why not do their promoting in that cheaper way? What I find interesting is that guys like Cavendish or Cancellara, highly paid pros, may sacrifice their duties to their trade teams (and potential salary or bonus) to compete for little more than a gold medal. Has Samuel Sanchez become rich and famous after his win in 2008? Likely not as rich or famous as if he’d won LeTour or even La Vuelta, but despite the rampant commercialism, jingoism, etc. the Olympic Games are important to TRUE sportsmen and women.

  5. In the “any publicity is good publicity” department, whats the related penalty? fines? disqualification? I am thinking of the Black 28 Radioshack jerseys at the 2010 T de F or some of the Cipollini outfits.

  6. @inrng : This reminds me of the brand clash on the bike used by Mark Cavendish. Sky Procycling are using Pinarelo/Shimano, whereas Mark is contracted with some other brand. How is it going on? Is mark using Pinarelo bikes now?

  7. Here’s a question: does road cycling need the Olympics more than the Olympics needs road cycling, or vice versa?

    For the women, I think it’s fairly clear that the Olympic RR is an important promotional tool. For the men, I’m not so sure.

  8. Prashanth Bhat: Cavendish *was* contracted to Specialized, but presumably that was one of the complicated issues that needed to be resolved last year before he finally signed for Sky and started riding Pinarello.

  9. Bart: you risk “disqualification or withdrawal”, the decision is taken by the IOC and there’s no appeal channel.

    Larry T /Robert Merkel: it still carries some importance, for the wider public. And there are still ways for pro cycling to cash in. I remember the white “limited edition” Cervélo frame used by Cancellara that got plenty of coverage in/after Beijing.

    Prashanth Bhat /Dave: yes he is on Pinarello. Note he wears Addidas shorts and Nike shoes.

  10. This highlights the inherent conflicts when allowing sponsored professionals into the Olympics. Not that there weren’t conflicts with “amateurs”, but these are more obvious and blatant.

  11. Is there any other sport that is as commercialised as pro-cycling and has those same professionals competing in the Olympics? I can’t think of any. Athletics isn’t anywhere near as commercial, there are only a handful of top professional footballers who compete in the Olympics due to the rules etc. Seems that pro-cycling is in a unique situation here.

  12. Graeme – how ’bout NBA basketball? Same deal as cycling – millionaires like Kobe Bryant risk injury (even if they might not lose any salary during the Games) to be part of a team, just to win a simple gold medal. The desire of being Olympic champion is just as strong (maybe more?) than it was for the ancient Greeks. One other note – the commercial references are VERY limited at the actual venues at the Games.

  13. Graeme: Olympic tennis is another sports where the pros are participating. Each player has a different sponsor. No idea how the IOC deal with them though.

  14. When the Winter Olympics (can I say that?) were in my home town a few years ago they had numerous “volunteers” policing each venue for any conspicuous branding being worn by the audience attending the events, such as hats, jacket labels, scarfs, etc. I guess the fear was that any camera shots of the audience or in the background may inadvertently advertise a non-sponsoring company. It all seemed a little ridiculous. I think they would prohibit you from attending unless you removed the item, turned it inside out, or put tape over the name.

  15. @Robert Merkel I think that Olympic participation is more important than the race itself – it means funding for national associations which often rely on IOC money and that trickling down to the sports involved….Road cycling can stand up and say “we’re an olympic sport” to the government/funders. Taken to a stupid degree is the british track programme which won’t even put a rider in an event at the worlds/world cups if it isn’t on the olympic programme – see individual pursuit. The IOC/UCI conspiring to ruin the track cycling programme is a-whole-nother story……

  16. It sticks in the craw a little bit to see people who fund the sport every day of the year usurped by large corporations with wholly unhealthy products jumping on the Olympic bandwagon; I’m thinking Coca Cola, Cadbury’s etc from what I’ve seen so far. The IOC can censor people from talking brands, but should also take a responsible attitude to whom it is willing to lend the olympic brand.

  17. I’m from Rio and we are facing several of these discussions regarding both the the World Cup (2014) and the Olympics (2016). Negotiations on the Olympics have been doing well, but Fifa is having a pretty hard time, since a lot of the covenants contained in the agreement signed by the government are actually against the law – tax exemptions for all companies somehow related to the games, etc. The most recent controversy is alcohol in the stadiums – it is forbidden by law, but there will probably be an exception during the World Cup. In any case, there’s a strong feeling here that FIFA (and to a lesser degree, the IOC), have it too easy.
    On the subject of cyling + Olympics, I can’t wait to see the route they are gone come up with for the games here. For those of you who don’t know, Rio has some pretty nice hills / small / medium mountains. My favourite training route has a section that is about 5km long, with an 8,7% average and a maximum of 15,8%. There are also longer and steeper sections – you can go up the Corcovado, where the Christ is, and the final 2km also has sections with over 14-15%. Most of these routes are in the middle of a national park, so it’s pretty scenic. So it might be very interesting to see – they could go with a course that would favour the sprinters, but also with courses that would be more similar to MSR and even some medium mountain stages.

  18. JT-see PeterC’s comment above. These are the kind of rules that make you say to yourself, “they wouldn’t have come up with a rule against it if someone hadn’t tried to get away with it.”

  19. The Swiss are really serious about Rivella. I once hinted to a Swiss consular person in Boston that I liked Rivella, from the time I lived there.

    Before I knew it, he had notified the Swiss embassy, and voila, a bottle of Rivella was produced.

  20. Bruno Sousa: I’ve heard the same about London. We might think of building new facilities and addressing (hiding?) the favellas but also there is a lot of work done on labelling and branding. Even a Pepsi logo at the airport could be out of the question. Imagine a rider drinking from, say, a Gatorade or Powerbar waterbottle? I look forward to the route, the road race seems especially good to show off the city, for example in Beijing with the wall and in London the finish by Buckingham palace.

  21. Am I the only one who wonders why cyclists make such a big deal out of the Olympics road race? Compared to the Monuments, it’s a Mickey Mouse event. No history, no character, just an opportunity for some very dubious individuals to puff themselves up.

  22. JT: The IOC will be keen to prevent any ‘Guerilla Marketing’ activities such as those performed by the Dutch Bavaria beer company at the 2010 World Cup, hence the vigilance on clothing of audience members.

    Amongst its many requirements FIFA also requires that it pays no tax to the hosting country, ( ). FIFA is a very rich organisation.

    FIFA also restricts the Olympic football team composition to ensure the Olympics does not overshadow it’s own World Cup event.

    There is still a significant prestige and honour to represent your country at the Olympics and I think the Olympic Road Race and Time Trial have gained in stature and many top riders (Cavendish, Gilbert, Cancellara, etc) have highlighted it as a major goal for the season.

    Whilst it is true the Olympics has strong commercial sponsorship this does basically help to pay for a signigicant proportion of the games. I am happy that Coca-Cola is paying for the Olympics, I still ain’t gonna drink the stuff….

  23. Should the road race even be in the Olympics? The Olympics should be the pinnacle of any sport that takes part in it, and one could argue that the Olympic road race is NOT the pinnacle of road racing. The three grand tours, the monuments and world championships appear to have more prestige than the Olympic road race. Same could be said for tennis, soccer and numerous other sports that are in the Olympics. On the other hand, track racing is a valid Olympic cycling event as an Olympic gold medal in a track event is the highest achievement.

  24. I completely understand why the Olympics is a prestigious goal for many pro cyclists.

    What I don’t get is why the team support them when they say, “I’m ditching (or not targeting) the Tour de France so I can focus on the Olympics…”. They are getting paid by the team to do a job, but then saying they want to target an event that their team will get no exposure in…

    I can imagine what would happen if I went to my boss and said, “I’m not gonna work as hard here anymore, because I want to focus my energy on another project – but still keep paying me please…”

  25. What professional sponsor would not want to have an Olympic champion in their stable? It’s the most prestigious and well recognized accomplishment, bar none across all sports disciplines throughout the entire world! The Olympics benefits from having professionals in the Games, and the professionals (and their sponsors) benefit enormously from the cache associated with winning a medal or even participating. Look at a box of breakfast cereal in your grocery store in the U.S. this summer for an example of the marketing impact of the Games. I don’t accept the premise that the Olympics are somehow less worthy as a goal in any organized sporting competition, and the fact that the pro’s target the Games is my argument. That, and the fact that practically every person on the planet knows the word “Olympics”. It’s a de facto win-win-win for all involved regardless of the advertising restrictions.

  26. How effective is a lot of this advertising? Until I read the first line of this post, I assumed Quickstep was an energy drink or shoe insole maker.

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