POV: Olympics Rule 40


Large scale cultural moments don’t come much bigger than the Olympic Games and Rio 2016 (kicking off on 5 August) may prove to be the most watched and talked about Games yet. The scale of interest and real-time nature of the Games present a huge opportunity for brands. However, controversial “Rule 40” may limit athletes, and in turn their commercial partners who aren’t official Olympic sponsors, from truly maximizing that opportunity.

Details and Implications:

By-law 3 to Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter (commonly referred to as “Rule 40”) states that: “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.”   

So why does the rule exist? And what are the implications?

Rule 40 helps to create a window of “exclusivity” for Official Olympic Sponsors (who have paid millions to align themselves with the Games), prevent ambush marketing, and ultimately protect a vital source of revenue.

Rule 40 isn’t new and whilst the guidelines supporting the rule have been relaxed slightly in advance of Rio 2016, the rule is continuing to cause controversy due to the restrictions it places on participants to market their own image during the period of the Games (27 July until 24 August) - for some, arguably the most prominent moment and greatest commercial opportunity of their careers.

The rule means that personal sponsors of participants who aren’t official Olympic sponsors can’t launch new advertising campaigns or use any terms directly related to (or implying an association with) the Olympic Games alongside the participant’s name or image (e.g. Olympic, Games, “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, medal, Rio etc.).  This means that non-Olympic sponsor brands who have been supporting athletes throughout their long road to the Games won’t, for instance, be allowed to react in social media to their Olympic performances or send them wishes of good luck during the Games period.  

Under the new guidelines for 2016, in a slight softening of previous rules, personal sponsors of participants who aren’t official Olympic sponsors can continue to run existing ‘generic’, non-Olympic themed campaigns during the period of the Olympics (subject to approval in advance by the IOC or applicable NOC).

In addition, the IOC relies on each National Olympic Committee (NOC) to interpret and enforce the guidelines. This lack of clarity across countries, makes it very difficult for international brands to navigate and means they inevitably have to create multiple versions of a campaign, or design to the lowest common denominator.


There’s a clear rationale behind Rule 40, and the guidelines surrounding the rule have been relaxed slightly - but the controversy has not gone away and many feel that the relaxing of the rules does not go far enough.

The brands (Olympic sponsors, and non-sponsors alike) which will ‘win’ in engaging with fans and capitalising on the opportunity this summer, will be those with a clear plan, a strong brand point of view and a comprehensive understanding of the regulations.