American athletes lead revolt against IOC ban on social media use to promote sponsors

U.S. runner Sanya Richards-Ross is part of a campaign demanding changes in Olympic social media rules. (AP)
U.S. runner Sanya Richards-Ross is part of a campaign demanding changes in Olympic social media rules. (AP)

LONDON – American athletes risked disqualification by leading a revolt against the International Olympic Committee on Monday and its draconian laws of forbidding competitors from using social media to promote their sponsors.

Spurred on by the outspoken words of members of the United States team, Olympians from around the world launched a Twitter campaign under the hashtags #Rule40 and #WeDemandChange in an attempt to pressure the IOC into action.

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Rule 40 is the section in the athletes’ code of conduct that warns anyone flouting the strict guidelines on the use of social media as a promotional tool will be expelled from the Games.

Dozens of athletes responded angrily, including U.S. 400-meter star runner Sanya Richards-Ross.

"I'd love to show my great sponsors love," Richards-Ross said. "I am one of the very fortunate athletes that work with wonderful sponsors during the Olympic year. [This is an] injustice."

Others took to Twitter to voice their displeasure, although most were careful to avoid any direct mention of the companies that endorse them.

The IOC also frowns upon strong criticism of the organization. National committees warned their athletes that any act of dissent, such as the Rule 40 tweets, could be grounds for disqualification.

That did not stop U.S. 20-kilometer race walker Maria Michta, who gave a heartfelt and eloquent description of how the regulations have affected her.

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"I have no big brand corporate sponsor who gives me free gear, pays me a salary and gives me a bonus for making it to events like the Olympics," Michta wrote on her personal blog. "My sponsors are my family, my friends, my high school community, the family of race walkers around the country. My sponsor bonus comes from each and every dollar thrown in my bucket, every donation on my website. Those are the sponsors that I represent.

"And because of rules like Rule 40 and others I could not use the image of myself at Olympic Trials or the title U.S. Olympian in any pictures, posts or tweets to fundraise money to help pay for my travel expenses and get my family, the family that has sponsored me from day one, over to London to watch me compete."

The campaign seemed to be gathering pace throughout Monday, with American middle distance runner Leo Manzano complaining about being ordered to remove a photograph of his shoes from his social media page. Others spoke out, as well.

"I am honored to be an Olympian," U.S. javelin thrower Kara Patterson added. "But I can’t tweet about my only sponsor."

The IOC had not yet addressed the issue as of Monday afternoon, but president Jacques Rogge is expected to face questions about it when he visits the Olympic Park on either Tuesday or Wednesday.

The stance of the IOC has attracted criticism before, but the organization claims such measures are necessary to protect the income it receives from its own affiliate sponsors.

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"Ambush marketers have, in the past, used their association with athletes to suggest or imply that they have an association with the Olympic Games," reads the code of conduct. "This undermines the exclusivity that Organizing Committees can offer official Games and team sponsors, without whose investment the Games could not happen.

"The implication of an association with the Games through use of athletes is particularly powerful during and immediately before the Games. Participants who do not comply with Rule 40 may be sanctioned by the IOC in accordance with the Team Members’ Agreement which provides for wide ranging sanctions, including amongst other things removal of accreditation and financial penalties."

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