Olympic Athletes Rebel Against Social-Media Rules

Restrictions Interfere With Sponsor Relationships, Claim Athletes

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Olympic athletes are using Twitter to coordinate an online rebellion against the International Olympic Committee's rules on social media, claiming that restrictions on advertising are ultimately affecting their performance by obstructing sponsor relationships.

In order to protect sponsorship dollars, the IOC's Social Media, Blogging and Internet Guidelines' Rule 40 limits athletes competing in the Olympic Games from appearing in advertising during and shortly before the games in order to help prevent ambush marketing.

U.S. track and field athletes are leading the campaign against Rule 40, using the hashtag #WeDemandChange. ESPN reporter Darren Rovell argued, "The IOC argues Rule 40 protects the investment of those who sponsor the games. It does. It also shows no regard for the athletes."

Lauren Fleshman, who was the U.S. 5000 meters champion in 2006 and 2010, took advantage of the fact that she's not competing at the Olympics by giving a shout-out to the sponsors of her friend, Alysia Montano, who is competing as a middle-distance runner at London 2012. Ms. Fleshman tweeted, "I don't have to follow #rule40. Do you? @redbull gives @Alysia800 wings. #wedemandchange." Alysia Montano is sponsored by Nike and Red Bull.

Dawn Harper, a 100-meter hurdler, has been tweeting photos to make her point, including one of her hairdryer with "Rule 40" tape stuck over its brand name and another with the Rule 40 tape stuck over her mouth.

Texan Leo Manzano, a 1500-meter runner, went one step further. The athlete, who was born in Mexico, risked the wrath of the IOC when he tweeted yesterday, "I crushed a 4.0 mi run with Nike + SportWatch GPS. #nikeplus:go.nike.com."

Two days ago, Mr. Manzano tweeted, "I am very disappointed in Rule 40 of the USOC as I just had to take down my picture of my shoes and comments," and directed followers to a discussion of the topic on his Facebook page.

Athletes who are lucky enough to have deals with official sponsors such as Procter & Gamble, Adidas, BMW, McDonald's and Coca-Cola, can promote them freely in their tweets, but those who are sponsored by other companies are not allowed to mention them on social media during the games.

Race walker Maria Michta and sprinter Lauryn Williams, both representing the U.S. at London 2012, have written passionate blog posts about their reasons for demanding that the IOC relax Rule 40.

Ms. Williams wrote, "During the time period when we have the biggest platform to be heard we cannot even thank those who have helped us the last four years. ... It also reduces an athlete's value to any sponsor outside the scope of the IOC or USOC, making it difficult for most athletes to secure personal sponsorship and make a living.

With China and the U.S. neck-and-neck at the top of the medal table, Chinese athletes have the advantage of state funding, whereas U.S. athletes rely heavily on sponsorship to fund participation at such a high level. According to Ms. Williams, it is not unknown for an Olympic athlete to win a medal and then return to living in a car.

The IOC and the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games had not returned requests for comment at the time of writing.

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