Want to see the glasses and goggles that aerials skier Lydia Lassila and snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis wore at the Sochi Olympics? If you go to the website of the company that manufactures their eyewear, you might be in for a shock.
On the Australian section of Bolle.com, photos of Lassila, Jacobellis and other competitors at the Sochi Games have been digitally blurred to obscure their faces.
This isn’t a throwback to the days when Soviet propaganda chiefs airbrushed people out of photos. It’s an extreme application of regulations meant to make sure that companies such as Bolle, which do not sponsor the Olympics, don’t get to advertise off the back of them.
So the Olympics are a Pepsi-free zone, because Coca-Cola is an Olympic sponsor. In Sochi’s Olympic Park, only Visa cards work for payments or in ATMs, again because Visa is a sponsor. At one Sochi venue, an Olympic worker even slapped a white sticker over the Dell logo on a journalist’s laptop, because the computer manufacturer isn’t an Olympic sponsor.
For Olympians, the dense and confusing thicket of rules severely restricting advertising is a serious issue. In theory, Olympians could be disqualified if they use the games to plug non-approved brands. The International Olympic Committee even holds athletes responsible for how their sponsors behave outside the Olympic bubble.
Rule 40 of the IOC charter 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.”
The rule means athletes cannot allow their images to be used for any commercial advertising, whether Olympic-related or not, for the duration of the blackout period. Even physical advertising such as billboards and magazines are covered, though it’s not clear how that would work logistically.
Pandora, the jewelry company that sponsors U.S. figure skaters Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold, isn’t an Olympic sponsor. It has had to put on hold an advertising campaign it prepared with Gold and to stop running magazine ads that showed Wagner, their agents said.
For Sochi, the rule applies from nine days before the opening ceremony until three days after the closing – Jan. 30 to Feb. 26.
While the IOC has steadfastly defended the policy, the committee appears willing to consider changes in the future.
“It’s up for discussion and debate,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. “It’s an open issue at the games. We’ll discuss it with all the stakeholders.”
Gilbert Felli, the IOC’s executive director of the Olympic Games, said the rule would be reviewed just like all other aspects of the games. “It’s like any rule,” he said. “If you aren’t happy about it, then we can talk about it.”
Athletes aren’t all happy about such policies. U.S. skier Ted Ligety labels the rule “barbaric.” Before the blackout kicked in, he tweeted: “I want to give a shoutout to my sponsors that supported me for years yet arent allowed to get OLY love.”
Figure skater Gold left one of her favorite jackets at home because it was made by Pandora. She said she did not want to risk falling foul of the “very frightening” thicket of rules.
The U.S. team “gave me clothes and those are the clothes I’m going to wear, you know? If they give me a certain type of water, that’s the water I’m going to drink. You really just can’t risk it,” she said.
Norwegian online store Ludo, which sells everything from clothes to electronics, used a product featuring cross-country skier Marit Bjoergen on its website early in the games.
Norwegian IOC member Gerhard Heiberg told Norwegian media the ad could lead to “consequences,” including Bjoergen being stripped of the gold. Ludo pulled the image immediately and the issue died down.
The IOC’s top global sponsors pay up to $100 million each for exclusive four-year deals. Adams said the IOC is redistributing $5 billion in commercial revenues over the current four-year cycle to national Olympic bodies, international federations and organizing committees.
The ban doesn’t apply to Olympic partners. BP, for example, is a sponsor of the U.S. team, so it can continue to air a commercial featuring Wagner, the skater, during the games.
“I haven’t felt like our hands are tied at all because, luckily for her, her main sponsors are Olympic sponsors,” said Wagner’s agent, David Baden. “That’s a luxury for us that they can still advertise Ashley during the games.”
The rule has caused controversy at the Summer Olympics, too. Dozens of athletes waged a Twitter campaign at the 2012 London Games, using the hashtags “WeDemandChange2012″ and “Rule40.”
“After London, we maintained our position,” Felli said. “Maybe there are some new arguments. Maybe we can see it differently after these games. But the rule is there to protect the athletes. It’s not just for a few. It’s for all of them.”
Olympians tread carefully. When a reporter asked U.S. snowboarder Faye Gulini to name her sponsors, she replied: “Am I allowed to say? I don’t really think I am.”
So she asked a team official: “I’m not allowed to talk about sponsors, right?”
“Not under Rule 40. Not specific sponsors,” came the response.
The Australian wing of Bolle felt it necessary to blur out the faces of winter Olympians on its web site. “It’s disappointing not to be able to send messages of support for our athletes and teams,” spokeswoman Fiona Marty said. “But whilst Rule 40 exists, then we will abide by these restrictions to protect our athletes from repercussions.’
Some Olympic committees police the rules more vigorously than others. Lassila’s manager, Bruce Kaider, said he got a letter from the Australian Olympic Committee after he tweeted a photo of her in the Olympic Village. This was before the 2010 aerials champion won a bronze in that event in Sochi. Kaider said he subsequently deleted that and other tweets referencing the Olympian.
Lassila said she was even told during the aerials competition that she could not have her own name on her helmet.
“I had to take that off. That’s a bit excessive,” she said. “It’s not a brand I’m trying to promote.”