London 2012: The great Olympics sponsorship bandwagon

From top left, clockwise: girl with Olympic rings painted on face, crowds waving flags, Olympics mascots, cushion with logo, mascots

Once upon a time the Olympics was about amateurism and the pleasure of sport. But now there is a distinctly commercial ring to them. So has the Olympics become too much about sponsorship?

Every day there's inspirational footage of the torch relay in the British media.

But anyone lining the route has to wait as a veritable cavalcade of vehicles - with the relay's three sponsors Coca-Cola, Lloyds TSB and Samsung shouting over speakers and handing out flags - trundle by before the torch bearer eventually comes along.

It makes people realise that the commercial element is a massive part of the Games now.

Sponsorship has become increasingly important over recent years, both for the brands and the governing bodies footing the bill.

From top left, clockwise: Coca-cola sponsorship tent, McDonalds in the Olympic Park, Samsung van on torch relay, Olympic Internet cafe Spot the odd one out

The UK government even passed a new law - the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006 - which, together with the Olympic Symbol (Protection) Act of 1995, offers a special level of protection to the Games and their sponsors.

As well as introducing an additional layer of protection around the word "Olympics", the Games' mottoes and symbols, the law bans unauthorised "association". This bars non-sponsors from employing images or wording that might suggest a link to the Games.

The act has already led to stories of individuals and small businesses falling foul of the rules.

Protected words

Use of two words in Group A, or one word in Group A and one in Group B, could see you falling foul of Olympics sponsorship rules:

Group A

  • Games
  • Two Thousand and Twelve
  • 2012
  • Twenty-Twelve

Group B

  • London
  • Medals
  • Sponsors
  • Summer
  • Gold
  • Silver
  • Bronze

In 2007, Dennis Spurr, a butcher from the Fantastic Sausage Factory in Weymouth, Dorset, was reportedly told to take down a sign showing five sausage rings in the shape of the Olympic logo, with 2012 written underneath. He changed the rings to squares and 2012 to 2013.

Last year, bakers at the British Sugarcraft Guild were reportedly told that using Olympic symbols in icing and marzipan modelling would breach copyright.

Others caught up included a florist that put up Olympic rings made of tissue paper, and an 81-year-old woman hoping to sell a £1 doll - wearing a hand-knitted sports kit with a GB 2012 logo and Olympic rings - in a fund-raising sale.

The University of Derby was reportedly forced to take down a banner that read "supporting the London Olympics".

And last month, Birmingham Royal Ballet's artist director David Bintley was ordered to change the name of his latest production from Faster, Higher, Stronger - the Olympic motto - to Faster.

Critics have accused London Olympics organisers Locog of embarking on an extreme crackdown, and dubbed them the "Olympic brand police".

"Whilst the Olympic movement has every right to protect its registered trademarks and properties, I feel it has been allowed to go too far in protecting its sponsors in the case of the London Olympics. Proscribing certain everyday words only damages the tens of thousands of small businesses that might share in the Olympics feel good factor," says David Thorp, of the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

But Locog says the London 2012 brand is its "most valuable asset", and "if [it] did not take steps to protect it from unauthorised use and ambush marketing, the exclusive rights which [its] partners have acquired would be undermined".

It is not just the zeal with which Locog has been enforcing brand protection laws that has caused controversy.

Others have objected to the type of brands that have been chosen as official sponsors.

Human rights and environmental pressure groups have campaigned against BP, Dow Chemical - which now owns the firm behind the Bhopal gas leak disaster in 1984 - and Rio Tinto. All three companies have defended their ethical record.

McDonalds Olympic Park The Olympics' association with McDonald's has been criticised

Health issues have also been raised, with London Royal Free Hospital cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra saying it is "obscene" that the Olympics has chosen to associate itself with fast food (McDonald's), sugary drinks (Coca-Cola), chocolate (Cadbury's) and alcohol (Heineken) when there is an obesity epidemic.

Olympic boxing silver medallist Amir Khan has also criticised London 2012 organisers for allowing McDonald's to open its largest restaurant - which will have 1,500 seats - in the Olympic Park.

It's ultimately the IOC which sets the tone and picks the biggest "worldwide partners", which include McDonald's and Cola-Cola, while Locog selects other sponsors.

"The IOC only enters into partnerships with organisations that it believes work in accordance with the values of the Olympic Movement," a spokesman says.

Ambush marketing in action

Netherlands fans in Bavaria miniskirts
  • 1984: Kodak sponsors TV broadcasts, despite Fuji being Los Angeles Olympics' official sponsor. Fuji returns favour at Seoul 1988 Games
  • 1992: Nike sponsors news conferences with the US basketball team. Michael Jordan accepts the gold medal for basketball and covers up his Reebok logo
  • 1994: American Express runs ads claiming Americans do not need "Visas" to travel to Norway for the Winter Olympics
  • 2000: Qantas Airlines' slogan "Spirit of Australia" coincidentally sounds like games slogan "Share the spirit" to chagrin of official sponsor Ansett Air
  • 2010: Dutch brewers Bavaria creates publicity stunt with women wearing orange mini-dresses in stadium during South Africa World Cup. Budweiser was authorised beer

The IOC notes that both Coca-Cola and McDonald's are longstanding sponsors and are involved in educational programmes to promote healthy lifestyles.

The extent of the exclusivity arrangements has also caused consternation, with McDonald's making headlines for a spat over its chip monopoly and Visa coming under fire for effectively banning the use of rival cards at Games venues.

Olympic fans have also had to contend with the confusion of renamed venues, with the O2 centre now called the North Greenwich Arena and Coventry's Ricoh Arena the City of Coventry Stadium.

Meanwhile, athletes have been warned not to tweet or blog about any brand that's not an official sponsor.

So why is the Olympics so much about sponsorship, when did it happen, and are the brand protection laws necessary?

Locog's position is simple. It says in order to stage the Games, it had to raise at least £700m in sponsorship, and it could not have done that if it did not offer its partners protection.

The IOC is similarly clear, saying without the support of its official commercial partners, the Games would not be able to happen.

"The partners' support allows more athletes from more countries to compete in the Games, and they deliver the services and resources that are the driving force of the Olympic Movement," says Gerhard Heiberg, chairman of the IOC Marketing Commission.

But for others, the "Olympic brand circus" is doing more harm than good.

How much does it cost to stage the Olympics?

"When you get brands parading like peacocks rather than sharing the real essence of the Olympic spirit - it becomes a farce verging on propaganda," says brand consultant Jonathan Gabay.

"There are now so many restrictions because of the sponsors that the 2012 Games are set to be more censored than the Beijing Games."

When you go back to the origins of the Games, the Olympics has almost done an 180-degree turn on its amateur and original ideals, says Tony Collins, director of the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at England's De Montfort University.

He says the first small sponsorship deals started to emerge in the 1930s, normally with local companies, and grew in the 1970s, but it wasn't until 1984 that the Los Angeles Olympic organising committee decided to pursue sponsorships. This came after the financial disaster of the 1976 Montreal Games.

The 1976 Games led to a change in the sponsorship model, according to Simon Chadwick, professor of sport business strategy and marketing at Coventry University Business School.

Opening ceremony of the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens The 1896 Olympics: Not a banner in sight

"In Montreal, the Olympic Games had 628 official partners, and a lot of them began to question whether they were seeing any value. Lots of fans and media became cynical and questioned the commercial nature of the Olympics, and the IOC were concerned about what was happening, so in 1984 they decided to stop selling lots of sponsorship for relatively small amounts of money and sell a few brands for a lot of money.

"Which is why if Coca-Cola is spending upwards of £100m for a right of association, which is clearly a huge amount of money, the IOC understands brands need category exclusivity."

Then there was the ambush marketing phenomenon - where non-sponsors tried to cunningly exploit the Games. The IOC obliged host nations to pass legislation to protect official sponsors from stunts, Chadwick says.

London 2012 - One extraordinary year

London 2012 One extraordinary year graphic

There is no protection for other specific events - such as those of Uefa or Fifa - within the UK, but there is in other countries, according to Phillip Johnson, barrister and associate professor of intellectual property law at University College Dublin. It is becoming part of a trend.

"Portugal granted local protection for Euro 2004. Italy gave protection to Turin for the 2006 Winter Olympics, Canada had protection for the 2010 Vancouver Games and Beijing has anti-ambush marketing laws as well. Brazil has already introduced its anti-ambush marketing laws for 2016."

But Johnson says although the 2006 Act has a "broad scope and the uncertainty makes the association right very controversial", as far as he is aware, although Locog has warned people not to do things and strongly exerted its rights, it has not actually started any proceedings for infringement of rights.

"Locog would have to be careful about which cases it brings as it does not want to damage the reputation of the Olympics by bringing the wrong case."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 628.

    I am really tired of people attacking fast food as the cause of obesity.
    Lean Beef Burgers are not the cause.Over eating and eating deep fried food like chicken are the cause.Ask Obese people how much they eat and they will always say, no more than average.Yet if you observe their dietary consumption it is far beyond their daily needs.Food gives simple pleasure and people eat to feel good.

  • rate this

    Comment number 627.

    There is always a limit to how many people a company can persuade people to buy their merchandise.

    Adverts can persuade me as much they like but I do not have to buy their stuff.
    It has got to a point now where ads are in the face all the time.
    Only the gullible are brainwashed into their purchases.

    If I cannot switch over channels during adverts, or go make a cuppa, a TV will go in the bin.

  • rate this

    Comment number 626.

    maybe it should be renamed the obese bankers games!!

    we have a government telling us to eat heathier, and coca cola, and macdonalds following the olympic torch around the country, giving away sugar and fat loaded freebees, i,m surprised the lloydstsb van is not selling over priced morgages and loans....

  • rate this

    Comment number 625.

    I'm going to advertise '2012 NoTo-olimpicks' and completely disassociate myself from this over rated, over promoted, over policed, piece of propaganda. It has not started yet but I'm already sick of it. Time people voted with their money but I doubt they will.
    C'mon McDonalds & Coke A Cola as Sponsors are you having a laugh
    What about the companies, people that actually promote healthy eating

  • rate this

    Comment number 624.

    As is stated in your title... its all on the bandwagon... for profit and greed.

    The Olympics also "compete" with the host place attempting to better their former venue in ever increasing. increments. Sense tells us this lavish extravaganza can not increase forever.

    Like the Elgin Marbles, return the games to Greece and allow competition , free in spirit as originally possible & security easier.


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