Controlling the Uncontrollable: Why Olympic Rule 40 Must Go

It Hurts the Athletes Who Need Sponsor Dollars Most

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A lot has been written about the role social media is playing at the Olympics. And for good reason: from athletes in London to all of us at home, this will be the most participatory games ever – thanks to the never ending 24-7 cycle of social commentary.

Unlike any other games though, Twitter has given all of us an immediate, in-the-moment channel to share news and views instantaneously worldwide. So it's no wonder someone is trying to control it quickly.

Enter the International Olympic Committee Rule 40: an official gag order on Olympic tweeting. The rule bans athletes from mentioning sponsors on Facebook, Twitter or any other other social media, and seeks to limit them from using their name or likeness for any advertising purposes. The rule went into effect July 18 and doesn't expire until August 15. For anyone breaking it, the penalties can be severe: financial, removal of accreditation and even the possibility of disqualification.

A social media blunder ending your games? Surely, not?

But tweets from both Michael Morganella and Voula Papachristo removed them from their respective Olympic squads early in the competition. And the women's US soccer goalie Hope Solo netted a big reaction for her twitter rant against her own team. The unforgiving title of the ESPN article is Hope Solo Shows A Lack Of Leadership.

While the intent of ISO Rule 40 is keeping the focus on amateur athletes and not turn social channels into marketing sponsored whitewash, it instead misses the mark. Only those sponsored athletes are truly impacted. And, for them, their sponsorship is a large part of their income and one of the reasons they've even been able to make it to London in the first place.

As with any rule, there is a group opposing it. Track and field athletes are leading the way. #Rule40 and #wedemandchange are places to follow the debate, and the most vocal and seeming poster child for the debate is Sanya Richards-Ross, at 53,000+ followers and counting.

Comments, imagery, logos, its all part of sponsorship at the games. I've always found the Winter Olympics to be an even greater example of overt branding. The moment a skier finishes their run, they pop off one ski, stand it upright and hold the logo next to their head for every camera. It is almost a reflex reaction as much part of the sport as a slalom turn.

Rule 40's shadow over social media behavior also suggests an interesting precedent for marketers and sponsorship in general. Social media is a blurred but natural part of any sponsorship, so how can you begin to impact natural behavior?

I believe common sense must surely limit the amount of overt marking. People are smart, generally speaking. We react or raise our hands when brands, sponsors and messaging gets too out of line. The IOC should ease off – the social media channel actually gives everyone the same ability to attack brands the moment they step out of line.

But do athletes themselves need social media coaches? Probably. An off the cuff remark can start a traditional media fire storm, give away a result before time-delayed prime time catches up, and ruin audience enjoyment and athlete reputation.

On camera, athletes have been trained to take the high road. Say the right thing. Cheer on the team. But, alone or with a group spurring you on, good sportsmanship can give way to heat-of -the-moment comments, can't they? This judge overreacted to this, or that judge didn't see what my competitor did or didn't do something. Watch for those moments happening during the games and then see what the Twittersphere does with it.

One thing's for certain, Rule40 will spark post-Olympic debate and discussion. As marketers, brands and sponsors define the best use of social media for their strategies different governing bodies are now going to try to exert their power and influence.

My opinion is to let the social media world police itself. On the global stage and in high profile situations when people or brands step out of line, the social world corrects itself and ostracized the offenders. There is an instant feedback loop that kicks in, the media comment, peers judge and the audience moves on to the next.

Marcus Fischer is CEO of space150.
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