The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil takes place from 5th August 2016 through to 21st August 2016. Much of the recent negative sports law related publicity has centred around the issue of whether Russian athletes should or should not be allowed to compete but there has also been considerable commentary in relation to “Rule 40” which serves to limit how brands that are not official partners of the Olympic Games can advertise or post on social media during the Games period. The Rule also restricts what athletes themselves can tweet during the Games.

Rule 40, bye-law Paragraph 3 of The Olympic Charter exists in order to protect the intellectual property of official Olympic Games sponsors such as Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Samsung who have all invested substantial amounts of money in order to be directly associated with and receive the marketing rewards from the Games. The Rule states that only such approved Olympic sponsors can refer to so-called ‘Olympic-related terms’ between the period 27th July and 24th August 2016. Athletes must also effectively sever all ties with any non-Olympic sponsors until 3 days after the Games end.

The International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) state that prohibited Olympic-related terms include but are not limited to words and hashtags such as ‘Rio’, ‘gold’, ‘silver’, ‘bronze’, ‘medal’, ‘Olympian’ and even more vague words such as ‘victory’. While non-official Olympic partners have been warned over the use of such terms on social media, sporting brands in the same category have also been told they must not pass on messages of good luck to their athletes competing at the Games. Such companies are barred from retweeting their athletes’ views on Twitter and any Team GB athlete in breach of these strict regulations faces possible sanctions, which may even be as draconian as expulsion from the Games.

The strict stance of the IOC in relation to Rule 40 and the rise of social media platforms such as Twitter, even since the 2012 Olympics suggests that there are likely to be a number of breaches of Rule 40 during the relevant period. Explaining Rule 40, US Olympic Committee chief marketing officer Lisa Baird has stated: ‘Commercial entities may not post about the Games on their corporate social media accounts. This restriction includes the use of trademarks in hashtags such as #Rio2016. We need to give sponsors exclusivity to our intellectual property.’

Companies who are not Olympic sponsors are able to support their athlete and vice-versa, but only if they don’t mention the competition or any ‘Olympic-related terms’ directly. Elaborating upon the strict nature of the rules and seeking to provide clarity, Baird has further stated: ‘Athletes can generically say, “Thank you for your support” during the Games. ‘But a company that sells a sports drink certainly can’t post something from the Games on their social media page or website. They’re doing nothing but using the Olympics to sell their drink.’

In reality, it remains to be seen how strict the enforcement of Rule 40 will be but it appears that if a company makes a coordinated attempt to create a prohibited commercial association with the Olympic Games or any of the Olympic properties then it is likely that necessary legal action which would include civil injunctions and accompanying damages claims will ensue. The next few weeks will however serve to indicate whether the IOC and the official Games sponsors are willing to go further than just writing warning letters to companies and brands who seek to engage in the area of Olympic conversation.

Here at Farleys we have a specialist sports law department who regularly advise on issues such as the above. If you have been affected by any of these issues then do not hesitate to contact us today to speak with one of our specialist solicitors who will advise you upon the grounds and merits for successfully bringing or defending a claim.