A quick guide to the restrictions on sponsors and athletes at the Winter Olympic Games

Published 16 February 2018 By: Steven Smith

Speedskater with a reflection on ice

From a business and marketing perspective, the Olympics provide a unique and exciting opportunity for both sponsors and athletes. The Olympics and the 5-Rings are among the most recognizable brands in the world. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the many National Olympic Committees (NOCs) around the world have worked tirelessly to build, promote and protect their brand.

This means that there are a number of pitfalls for the unwary. Specifically, the Olympic Charter1 of the IOC places significant restrictions on marketing activities around, during and related to the Games. Here are our top 6 things you should know about marketing during the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang

1. Olympic athletes cannot appear in advertising without National Olympic Committee permission.

Under Bye-law 3 to Rule 40 of the IOC’s Olympic Charter, “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.” This restriction applies during the so-called “blackout period” or “Rule 40 period” designated by the IOC, which extends from before the opening ceremonies to after the closing ones. For this year’s Games, that period is February 1-28, 2018.

The IOC has issued clarifying guidelines to this Bye-law which provides that a sponsor and an athlete can apply for permission from the National Olympic Committee of the athlete and (if different) the NOC in which the advertising is to run. In certain cases, a sponsor must also apply to the IOC. So, unless the IOC approves, you won't see the stars of the Olympics appearing in any television commercials until the Games are over. In our experience, obtaining permission from a National Olympic Committee is not a quick process. Further, this rule applies even if an ad campaign has started before February 1st.

2. Athlete clothing and equipment must be “clean.”

Under Bye-law 1 to Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, “No form of publicity or propaganda, commercial or otherwise, may appear on persons, on sportswear, accessories or, more generally, on any article of clothing or equipment whatsoever worn or used by all competitors, team officials, other team personnel and all other participants in the Olympic Games, except for the identification . . . of the manufacturer of the article or equipment concerned, provided that such identification shall not be marked conspicuously for advertising purposes.

What this means in practice is that Olympic athletes’ uniforms must be “clean” and can only bear trademarks of the manufacturer of the clothing or equipment. So, although you may see the Burton name on Shaun White's snowboard, you will not see him wearing any other advertisements during competition.

3. Likewise, there is no advertising in venues during the Olympics.

Likewise, the IOC does not permit advertising on venues during the Games. In fact, this even applies to naming rights for a stadium or arena; the IOC requires the local Olympic Organizing Committee not to allow a venue to refer to its naming rights partner during and around the Games.

4. Use of the signature Olympic rings is highly restricted.

As a sponsor, if you want to use the Olympic rings in connection with your brand, or even the word “Olympics,” you must be a sponsor of either the IOC or a National Olympic Committee. The IOC and NOCs are protective over the rights to these words and symbols, and have a number of means to enforce restrictions on their use.

5. Even the mere inference of a connection with the Olympics is highly restricted.

The IOC's trademark rights can often extend to indirect references to the Games. For example, if your company runs a sweepstakes, and one of the prizes is a trip to Pyeongchang and tickets to the Games, it would be problematic to say "win a trip to the Games" or "you could go to Pyeongchang," as those would create an implied connection to the IOC and the Olympics.

6. Violators could face various penalties.

Depending on the violation, both the IOC and NOCs have various mechanisms to enforce these restrictions. Among them are the ability to make an athlete cover up improper marks on their clothing, to disqualify athletes, or to impose other sanctions. The IOC and NOCs also have more traditional legal options to them as well, such as trademark enforcement. In fact, a number of countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom,2 have passed legislation protecting various marks associated with the Olympics.

The issues discussed above are fairly unique to the Olympics. For athletes and sponsors new to the Olympic market, and even for those returning, it is key to know and understand the applicable marketing restrictions before you commit a violation.


For more information on this topic, please see: Navigating Olympic advertising: Rule 40 – a global perspective.3

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Steven Smith

Steven Smith

Steven Smith, Managing Partner of the Colorado Springs office, Bryan Cave LLP. Steven’s practice focuses on sports law, including naming rights, sponsorships, licensing agreements, stadium operations, television and media contracts, and representing leagues and National Governing Bodies.

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