This week marked the end of the Rio Olympics 2016. While the closing ceremony brought an end to 4 years of hard work for the athletes, it signals a new dawn for their ability to advertise and market their successes.

Amidst the excitement and drama, few spectators will have noticed the marketing and advertising blackout that existed for the duration of The Games.

What is Rule 40?

Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter provides that “Except as permitted by the IOC Executive Board, no competitor, team official or other team personnel who participates in the Olympic Games may allow his person, name, picture or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games.”

Why does the Rule exist?

The Olympic Games originally allowed amateur athletes to reach the pinnacle of sporting success. As the Games became more of a commercial enterprise, so did the rules governing those who take part. The rule exists to protect the Olympics from “ambush marketing” – from unofficial sponsors piggy-backing on the marketability and commercialisation of the Games. It serves a legitimate purpose – at a price. What the Games gives with one hand, it prohibits with the other. In a world where commercial exposure is more important and competitive than ever, athletes face as stiff competition off the track as they do on it.

A balancing exercise?

Although the rule largely remains the same, the environment, in which it sits, has markedly changed. The social-media revolution has created a difficult balancing exercise between competing interests: the IOC’s protection of their official sponsorship partnerships against the individual athlete’s ability to self-market. These are both legitimate interests and should be carefully managed. The question, however, is does Rule 40 go too far?

The Rio Games saw a relaxation of the rule to some extent, however some consider that relaxation to have been of limited benefit for the majority of athletes.

As a platform, the Olympics can propel athletes into the spotlight. The new found fame however can be short-lived and in some cases only exists for the duration of the Olympics. The rule prevents athletes, and those companies sponsoring them, from benefitting from short term glory. Only after the Olympics have concluded can they make reference to their performances for advertising purposes. By that stage however, it may be too late. For those less well known athletes, who rely on limited sponsorship, it seems unfair for the IOC to completely prohibit their ability to self-market at the most important time.

What now?

The Rio Games introduced a limited relaxation to rule 40. In order to benefit from that relaxation, advertising campaigns had to be approved well in advance of the Games. Only athletes with well-known profiles were likely to benefit. To those less-known athletes or those without substantial backing the relaxation is unlikely to have made a significant difference.

Although there is scope for the rule to be challenged at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, it seems unlikely that such a challenge will come from an athlete any time soon. Some larger companies are prepared to cleverly push the boundaries but such cases have not been made with the possibility of an athlete’s reputation being tarnished.

For the time being it appears that rule 40 will remain. Athlete objection and sponsor support is likely to be the significant driver behind an amendment. Until that time comes, both athletes and small to mid-sized companies will continue to be prevented by the all encompassing Olympic rules. A campaigning voice is needed and, if change is wanted, athletes and their sponsors should warm up their vocal chords before 2020 is upon us.