Brands using words such as ‘effort’ and ‘victory’ could cost athletes medals

With the the Games of the XXXI Olympiad starting in a few days, the IOC has reaffirmed the rules around the words and phrases that cannot be used by businesses that are not official sponsors. Called Rule 40, this regulation sets out some instructions and a list of the words that can’t be used, depending on the context, by any company not on the official sponsor list for the Games. The list includes:

  • 2016
  • Rio/Rio de Janeiro
  • Gold/Silver/Bronze
  • Medal
  • Effort
  • Performance
  • Challenge
  • Summer
  • Games
  • Sponsors
  • Victory
  • Olympian

Rule 40 was introduced to stop brands that weren’t paying to sponsor the Games from hijacking the coverage that the event generates by using words that associate them with the Olympics. Of course, it is fair enough that the sponsors who are paying to be part of the Games, should expect some protection. Otherwise the value that the event represents for them is diminished. But Rule 40 is very directly aimed at the athletes as a way of controlling the brands.


In the novel “1984” the fictional government (Big Brother) aims to stamp out dissent by recreating the language without any of the words that people would need to use to express dissatisfaction or rebellion. Obviously Orwell’s dystopian vision is extreme and – one hopes – never likely to come to pass. But what it does demonstrate is the power that controlling language confers. If you can stop people from expressing themselves, you go a long way to controlling many other aspects of their lives.

What the IOC is doing is holding the athletes hostage in order to control an aspect of the dialogue around the Games. It is possible that a brand, which has supported an athlete for years or even decades leading up to their Olympic moment could tweet:

“Congratulations to [athletes name] for your victory in Rio. All the effort was worth it”

And the athlete would be sanctioned for that. It even goes so far that if that same brand simply re-tweeted a tweet that an athlete had posted including any of the banned terms, that athlete could be sanction. And possibly suspended from the Games.

We undoubtedly live in a time when the original Corinthian ideals of amateurism that the Games was built upon have long since passed. Money plays a huge part in the Olympic Games, in the ways that brands behave and in the lives of the athletes who strive to do their best. And perhaps Rule 40 is the only answer that the IOC could think of to protect the interests of its sponsors and therefore its income. But I do wonder what the founding father of the IOC, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, would make of it all. Perhaps his ideals for the Games, captured in the Olympic Creed, are worth remembering because they speak of a less commercial time when participation was all that really mattered.

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win
but to take part, just as the most important thing in life
is not the triumph but the struggle.
The essential thing is not to have conquered
but to have fought well.


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