London 2012: The great Olympics sponsorship bandwagon

By Vanessa Barford
BBC News Magazine


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.

Image caption,
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.

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.

Image caption,
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.

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.

"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.

Image caption,
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.

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."