If there's one thing that drives the interest of casual sports fans during the Olympics, it's the personalities showcased every two years in the Summer and Winter Games. Athletes like sprinters Donovan Bailey and Usain Bolt, snowboarder Shaun White, and figure skater Johnny Weir are just some of the competitors who draw eyeballs to televisions and get heavily promoted to bring in large ratings.
The International Olympic Committee's latest attempt to keep originality and personality out of the Olympics has it ordering American goaltenders Ryan Miller(notes), Jonathan Quick(notes), and Tim Thomas(notes) to remove phrases from their masks as it violates IOC rule No. 51, which bans any sort of advertising, demonstration, and/or propaganda on an athlete's equipment. Miller had "Miller Time" on the back of his mask, which the IOC would make you believe is some sort of beer advertisement and not any kind of nickname for the Buffalo Sabres netminder. Quick had the audacity to put "Support Our Troops" on his, which apparently falls under the "propaganda" category next to "Thanks for serving" or "Beat those terrorists." Because of the IOC's rules, the American goaltenders are being forced to remove or cover up the phrases before Team USA's first game Tuesday afternoon, against Switzerland.
Thomas was asked to remove a "slogan" from his helmet, but in photos, all that appears to be written on it are the initials of his three children. The International Ice Hockey Federation told us Tuesday morning that Thomas had probably already covered the slogan in question, which would mean the initials weren't the issue, but they are still checking it out. Thomas' mask also features a bald eagle and a soldier saluting the American flag. Surely that's propaganda in the IOC's eyes, no? At least that's what I learned in junior high social studies.
Has the IOC gone too far with this rule in this situation?
What Team USA and Miller are most upset about is the IOC taking issue with the inscription of "Matt Man" on his mask. That's a tribute to his cousin who died three years ago after complications from a bone marrow transplant to help treat his leukemia. Ever since Matt Schoals' death, "Matt Man" has been on Miller's masks. As Yahoo! Sports' Dan Wetzel wrote Monday night, Miller didn't realize it'd be that big of a deal and hoped the IOC would be understanding of the situation:
The IOC has rules upon regulations upon more rules upon more regulations. Everything is about control, power, and money. The organization gets all of it, the athletes, who for years were forced into amateurism rules, get none.
Not bending to allow Matt Man would be a major lapse in judgment.
The issue here may boil down to a matter of understanding. Miller was hopeful that if he could explain the meaning of “Matt Man,” it would stay. He surmised Olympic officials might’ve thought the term was designed to sell something.
He had no idea though and didn’t want to argue his case in the press. Mostly he shrugged at the entire process; his helmets are fan favorites, something he’s almost known for as much as developing into one of the NHL’s best goaltenders.
Though rules are rules – no matter how draconian – and though "Support our troops" and "Miller Time" can be construed as propaganda and advertising, ordering an athlete to remove a tribute to a fallen relative or initials of children is just asinine and doesn't threaten to take away any of the control and power that the IOC has over these athletes. The Games are about competition and sport, but they're also a tribute to the efforts and sacrifices of these athletes.
Would the IOC step in if a Georgian athlete or any luge participant wanted to pay tribute to the fallen Nodar Kumaritashvili by placing his initials on their equipment? Probably not, because the IOC wouldn't want anymore bad press affecting the Vancouver Games.
UPDATE: Y!'s Dan Wetzel reports that Miller was able to keep the "Matt Man" tribute to his deceased cousin on his mask. "Miller Time" was removed.