Hijacked By Commercialism: The Five Intersecting Rings and Their Sponsors

by James D. Roumeliotis

There was a time when the Olympic Games stood purely for global athletic competition. Nowadays, you have to be somewhat paranoid considering the gross commercial exploitation. The management team in charge of the IOC (International Olympic Committee) have gone for tight-fisted brand control. In today’s economic environment, everyone is brand conscious. The defining line between sports and business and non-profit endeavors is a thing of the past.

Like Christmas, the Olympics have been hijacked by commercialism. What was once a tribute to athleticism has been transformed into an indulgence of consumerism.

Change In Perspective
Do you realize that the Olympic games went from honoring the Gods to becoming a vehicle for financial gain?

It is common knowledge that the Greeks invented the Olympics in 700 BC. However, the “modern” Olympics as we currently know it was established by Pierre de Coubertin, a Frenchman in 1896.

Until the year 1972, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would not accept money from corporate sponsors because it believed that due to their influence, the decision making authority of the IOC would be diluted. Until that year, the IOC was operating on a scanty budget with assets of $2m.

Following 1972, there was a radical shift on managing and running the Show. Members took the radical step to accept corporate sponsorship. In the next 8 years, the IOC accumulated assets worth $45 million. In the last four-year cycle that includes the London summer games as well as the Vancouver winter Olympics of 2010, the IOC raised $4.87bn in sponsorship and broadcast fees. On top of this, it earns a handsome sum on venue ticket sales, as well from licensing products/souvenirs.

The Commercialization of the Games

A new program called TOP (The Olympic Program) was created by the IOC in order to increase the Olympic brand value. To acquire a membership in TOP, a company has too forfeit $50m for four years. If a company becomes a member, then it has the right to use the Olympic symbol of the intersecting rings in its advertisements.

The 11 major brands have invested for the prestige and global celebrity. This intense exposure adds an exceptional opportunity to bond closely with their worldwide consumers. Alternatively, the IOC benefits from the revenue it earns from the sponsors, as well as the additional publicity it receives for the Olympics which the sponsors are contractually obliged to offer through their ads.

As for TV broadcasting rights, the bidding process can reach amounts in the low billions with some notable broadcasters such as NBC Universal. Despite lucrative advertising revenues, it is believed that it loses oodles of money for the sake of the title as “official broadcaster” to the Games.

An Excessively Antagonistic Brand

Prior to and during the actual Games, the IOC brand thugs are busy chasing down grandmas who sell muffins, a butcher who had to remove a bunch of sausages made to look like the iconic five ring logo and a shopkeeper who displayed intertwined bagels in alleged violation of branding rules. If that wasn’t enough, they have also threatened legal action to a dry cleaners operation named “Olympic”, whose business name existed for two decades, including improv comedians and Facebook users who mentioned or attempted to showcase any corporate entity that is a competitor to the official Olympics sponsors.

Renowned marketing expert Seth Godin articulated it best in his recent blog post by stating:

“Today, of course, everyone is a media company. In their misguided attempt to stop guerrilla marketers, squatters and media pirates, the IOC has completely missed the point of what a brand is. It’s not a word. It’s a set of expectations. You can’t build a brand by trying to sue anyone who chooses to talk about you.”

On the contrary, you have a Tennessee based distillery brand which handled a trademark violation with finesse and won it plenty of positive publicity and admiration. Referring to a recent story of a lawyer who defends trademarks for Jack Daniel’s whiskey and who was in the news for writing a cease-and-desist letter that is exceedingly polite, encouraging and empathetic. The letter was sent to the author of the satire “Broken Piano for President.”

Apparently, the book cover bears a striking resemblance to the label for Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey. All in all, both sides settled quickly and amicably with the absence of any needless strong arm tactics from the Whiskey’s legal counsel.

To add to the debacle, the IOC designates certain car lanes which are restricted to Olympic officials and athletes. Under normal every day circumstances, those are available to taxis for pickups and drop-offs. As a result, the “Olympic lanes”, although under-utilized for their intended purposes, in the interim create a great deal of inconvenience for drivers and passengers along with a significant drop in revenue for the cab drivers.

Suitable Sponsorship

Corporate sponsorship has also created controversy with the validity of some which go against the image of the athletic games such as McDonalds, Coca Cola and Dow Chemicals. With the McDonalds and Coca Cola, health food activists claim that the IOC could have taken a stand against obesity. They’re junk-food companies and have no business being associated with sport, health and performance.

Dow also a major sponsor, including its contribution of the fabric wrap around the stadium in east London, has caused a debate with campaigners arguing it holds responsibility for the disaster in Bhopal, India in 1984 which killed an estimated 15,000 residents. It’s a claim which it denies because Dow bought Union Carbide, the company which ran the plant at the time –16 years after the disaster and argues it has no responsibility.

Brash Marketing

In an online survey of 1,034 U.S. consumers, a week prior to the opening of this year’s summer games, respondents incorrectly mentioned Nike, Pepsi and even Google as brands behind the Games. Thirty-seven percent of respondents identified Nike as an Olympic sponsor, and just 24% said, correctly, that Adidas is one. That may be partly due to Nike’s success in identifying its brands with serious athletes of all types. Nike is also a master of ambush marketing.

Rival sponsor activities also invite bold antics from non sponsors who are willing to make a point by pushing the envelope to the edge. One sponsorship adversary who’s standing up to the Olympic branding czars is Nike. It’s got a longstanding reputation as a slick ambush marketer with more chutzpah and success than any other player on the field. Their latest “dare you” campaign has been named “Find Your Greatness” (theme: “Does greatness get handed out?”) and pokes fun at rival Adidas who is an official sponsor. Nike’s aim is to diminish them while elevating everyday athletes.

Bottom Line

Sponsorship should not be used to secure an unfair advantage. The Olympics may need sponsors, but they should refrain from applying bizarre brand exclusion zones to protect their investment. Sponsoring a big event gets the sponsor immense exposure and that’s its reward as a business. It shouldn’t buy special privileges. This is a big opportunity for the Olympics to get maximum exposure and conversation by anyone who cares to talk about the Games rather than stifle and control any discussion by ludicrous brand policies which only satisfy its sponsors.

Olympics sponsorship should not imply or allow carte blanche for sponsors to take jabs at their competitors. A case in point, Visa’s first Olympic campaign was full of ruthless antics. Having displaced American Express as the official payment card for the 1988 Winter Olympics, its ads bragged: “At the 1988 Winter Olympics, they will honor speed, stamina and skill – but not American Express.” Visa demonstrated how an Olympics sponsor can get away and deliberately put down its rival, in this case American Express.

Sponsors accepted by the IOC should be appropriate. Adidas, for instance, is a sports company and a fitting partner for the Olympics.

As politics and religion don’t mix, we should add that global athleticism, whose founding principle was to assemble top athletes from all corners of the earth to compete, should not mix with commercialism either.


Your views are welcome.

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Filed under 1, Branding, Business, Marketing

2 responses to “Hijacked By Commercialism: The Five Intersecting Rings and Their Sponsors

  1. Is it time for a competitor to the Olympics?
    by Seth Godin

    I’ll confess that I don’t watch the Olympics, but you’d have to be living under a rock to be unaware of the corruption and the expense. An amorphous organization with no transparency, unclear lines of responsibility, huge amounts of politics and a great deal of unearned power.

    I wonder what it would take to create an alternative?

    Ford, Nike and Netflix each put up a hundred million dollars or so. The games would be held two years before each corresponding Olympics, benefitting both athletes (who can’t always wait four more years) as well as curling-starved fans (not to mention advertisers). (Ted Turner tried this a long time ago, but I think it’s time to try again in a post-broadcast economy).

    To reflect a world that actually has electronic communications at its disposal, the games would be held in ten cities at the same time, not one, reusing existing facilities from previous games. With multiple time zones, the games could be held round the clock, and the logistical challenges of rebuilding a different city every time go away.

    And to reflect a world engaged in social media, the games would be focused on abundance, on sharing, on permission, as opposed to straining to build a legal wall around what goes on.

    (And in a Rollerball-like, post-sovereign twist, perhaps the teams are sponsored not by countries, but by companies, fraternal organizations and organized fans).

    We’d need a new song, sure, and a name that over time would somehow gain ridiculous trademark rights, but hey, you need to start somewhere.

  2. James thank you for your perceptive and fascinating articles òn luxury.

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