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Rule 40: How The Brands Blackout Impacts Olympic Athletes


This week Emma Coburn of the United States took the bronze medal in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. And after she crossed the finish line, she took off her shoes and slung them over her shoulder. That meant the big N for New Balance is in the photos where you usually see just the Nike swoosh. Nike is the official uniform supplier to the International Olympic Committee.

Turns out there is a complicated rule on the books to keep competing brands out of images from the games. It is known as Rule 40. Sally Bergesen is the founder and CEO Oiselle, an athletic brand for women that sponsors several Olympians, but not, of course, the Olympics themselves. She joins us now from Seattle. Thanks so much for being with us.

SALLY BERGESEN: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: How does this Rule 40 work?

BERGESEN: Pretty much, the basics of it are that there is a blackout period shortly before the Olympics start and extends all the way through the Olympics. And essentially it precludes businesses that may be supporters of the Olympics by sponsoring athletes from mentioning anything about the athletes or anything about the games themselves. And it also prevents the athletes who may be sponsored by those smaller businesses from acknowledging their sponsors.

SIMON: So this means that you might assist - I'll put it that way - a number of Olympians, but they are prohibited from saying thanks, Oiselle. And for that matter, you can't run an ad saying, congratulations to our friend, fill-in-the-blank, for winning the gold medal.

BERGESEN: Right, right, right. And so the real crux of the problem here is not only - I mean, you know, it's a downside that we've spent four years investing in an athlete that's now made the Olympic team, and we cannot get any visibility on the biggest stage.

But I would say that the bigger downfall is actually the fact that athletes are not compensated appropriately by the Olympic system, which, as you know, is an intense inflow of a lot of money. So, you know, it would be one thing if, you know, we were giving up the visibility, and the athletes were being compensated, but it's actually not the way the system is structured. And so that's why you see so much tension around this rule.

SIMON: Let me pose the question from this viewpoint, though. Nike spent I don't know how much money - a lot - to be the official sponsor. Shouldn't they be entitled to think that they don't have to compete with other companies that have spent far less for that kind of recognition?

BERGESEN: No. They absolutely should be sharing this stage with other businesses. I mean, if you look at USA Swimming - so if you go to the USA Federation for Swimming, they have three competing sponsors. And that's why it was interesting to see with the swimming how they've allowed this group of businesses to be involved, including even Michael Phelps' his own brand, which he launched at this Olympics, which is, by the way, putting income in his pocket, even though he might have a sponsorship agreement with Under Armour and even though he might be sponsored by Team USA, which is a Nike arrangement.

SIMON: But every company pays something, right?

BERGESEN: Every company pays something, and I think it just comes down to the relationship. And in track And field, there's an exclusive relationship that Nike has with USATF, which, you know, again, would be fine if some of that money were flowing down to more than the top 1 to 3 percent of top American track and field athletes, but that is not the case. And so that's where the problem lies in terms of not only is there not money flowing to the athletes, but also there isn't allowed an ecosystem of brands that could come in and sponsor them.

SIMON: Sally Bergesen is the founder and CEO of Oiselle. Thanks so much for being with us.

BERGESEN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.