The Debate: Have Olympic sponsorship regulations gone too far?

Steve Anderson
Sponsorship 300x225 The Debate: Have Olympic sponsorship regulations gone too far?


With only nine days days to go until the opening ceremony and ten until the events themselves begin, the wait for the London Olympics is nearly over. Come next Friday, London will be catapulted into the spotlight, and we must make sure that all of our dearly-held traditions and the hallmarks of our culture are fully represented.

Rain? Check.

Transport chaos? Check.

Unrealistic optimism in our nation’s sporting ability? Check.

Another thing Brits are great at is complaining. Maybe it’s just in London, but the Olympics seem to have given us the best excuse for a collective rant that we’ve had for a long time. Or since Euro 2012 last month, at least.

While last week’s moans turned to the poor preparations of security contractors G4S, the last few days have seen attention focusing on the restrictions placed on athletes, spectators, businesses, charities, your dinner, your clothes, your girlfriend and  your dog over what they can and can’t do in association with the Olympics.

It emerged this week that Britain would become flooded with ‘brand police’ in order to protect sponsorship deals, not just in the Olympic Park, but across the country as a whole, making sure that no one is implying an association with the Games when they are not an official partner.

Without the massive input from multi-nationals and their sponsorship deals there would be a struggle to foot the bill for this momentous event, but this latest news has led to the obvious cries about the corporisation of sport and the true meaning behind a supposedly unifying global event being lost to commercial interests.

So have the Olympic Delivery Authory (ODA) gone too far in protecting sponsors? Here, Matt Carr sees the restrictions as nothing less than censorship and completely at odds with the spirit of the “people’s games,” while Karen Earl argues, in short, that the Games simply could not go ahead without the backing of these giant corporations, and for that, they deserve to have their interests protected.

Who do you agree with? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Matt Carr

The London Olympic Organising Committee (Locog) may not have sufficient security personnel, and it doesn’t even seem to know how many it actually needs.  But no one can say the organizers don’t have a sense of priority.

Next week 300 Locog ‘enforcement officers’ will fan out across the country in an attempt to eliminate any unauthorised ‘association’ with the 2012 Olympiad.

Under the terms of the 2006 London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act, these ‘brand police’ will be able to impose fines of £20,000 on businesses, shops and charities that engage in such activities.

They can also penalise athletes who mention brands not included with the official sponsorship roster, and prevent the unauthorised use of  ‘listed words’ such as ‘London’, ‘London Twenty Twelve’, ‘Gold’, ‘Silver’, ‘Bronze’ and, most ludicrously, ‘summer.’

Luckily, if you live in ‘Gold Street’ or ‘Silver Road’, you can still say so.  But if you are an airline company, you better not hand out complimentary t-shirts saying ‘flying you to London, Olympic host city’.

Don’t put up posters saying ‘backing the 2012 Games’ or ‘supporting the London Olympics’ or you will have to take it down, as the University of Derby was told to do this April.  And woe betide a hotel that offers a ’10 per cent discount for London 2012.’

These obsessive restrictions form part of a censorship regime that one might associate with China or North Korea, and which calls into question  Locog’s representation of the Games as a promotional platform and an engine of economic regeneration for London (or should that be ‘the capital’) and the country as a whole.

The idea that giant multinationals like Dow Chemicals, McDonald’s and Proctor & Gamble need ‘protecting’ is ludicrous, since they are already guaranteed unrivalled publicity even without Locog’s  attempts to enforce their monopoly.

Why should a pub, a hotel or a restaurant – or a charity – not be able to make money from the Games too, as long as they aren’t engaging in fraud or producing counterfeit products?

Locog and the Government insist that the Olympiad is intended to ‘inspire’ the nation.  Yet it is barely permitted even to proclaim in public that you back or support the Games without running the risk of legal action from Locog’s brand enforcers.

In May an 81-year-old Norfolk woman was ordered to withdraw a doll wearing a hand-knitted 2012 running kit that she intended to sell for £1 to raise money for a church fundraising sale – or face the consequences.   So much for Olympic universality.

One suspects that this is not quite what Baron de Coubertin had in mind when he founded the International Olympic Committee.   And it really does raise the question of whether the London Olympics is really the “people’s games” at all – or whether it is nothing more than a giant shop window for large corporations that see everything as a potential marketing opportunity.

Matt Carr is a writer and journalist.  His books include ‘The Infernal Machine: A History of Terrorism’ and the forthcoming ‘Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent’.  He blogs regularly at

Karen Earl

It’s important to remember that events like the Olympics would not be possible without sponsorship funding. Of Locog’s c.£2bn operating budget, over £700m is met by sponsors and it’s crucial that the rights for which these sponsors have paid so much are protected against other companies who try to pass themselves off as official or connected to the Games in some way – ambush marketing in other words.

Some will remember the clash which erupted in 1992 between Visa and American Express over the winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Visa was the official sponsor of the Games; American Express launched a series of advertisements which tried to convince the public that it was the official credit card of the Games. Visa had paid a reported $20 million dollars for its Olympic rights – money vital to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in staging the Games. Quite rightly, IOC took American Express to court and won.

Perhaps it’s worth considering the implications if the IOC had either not taken the case to the courts, or if it had not won. Quite simply, Visa would not have continued its sponsorship of the Games in the future. It could also have sued the IOC for a breach of contract – one imagines an eye-watering amount in settlement. Arguably, the IOC might have been able to afford that one case, but that would not have been the end of it. All its other Games sponsors would have spoken with their feet – and left. It’s doubtful whether the Olympic Games movement could have recovered from such a situation.

So, quite simply put, sponsors of the Olympic Games pay a great deal of money to be official partners of an event which has the eyes of the world upon it. The benefits are huge. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t do it.

The IOC and its staging partners – in this case, Locog – have a legal obligation to protect those sponsors and the rights they’ve purchased.

The public doesn’t always understand a sometimes high-handed approach to the protection of those rights but without it there might never be another Olympic Games – or a football World Cup, or an F1 Grand Prix or any number of sporting events we enjoy on a weekly and annual basis. That’s the message. And, once the public understands it, they’ll understand why they are only offered Coca-Cola and its sister products, only able to use a Visa card, only ….. and so it goes on. Without those products there’d be no Games in London in nine days’ time.

Karen Earl is chairman of the European Sponsorship Association. She has worked in the sponsorship industry for over 35 years, starting her own agency, Karen Earl Sponsorship, in 1984.  The agency was renamed as Synergy in 2008 and is now part of Engine.

*This article was amended to clarify the £2bn figure quoted by Karen Earl. This cost of the staging of the Games is separate to the publicly-funded £9.3bn budgeted in 2007 for venues and infrastructure, which rose to around £11bn earlier this year.

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  • LudwigsLughole

    I find it fascinating the way that the PR people attempt to suggest that without sponsorship the games could not happen, Newsflash: the games are costing anywhere between £11bn to £25bn (the government want us to believe the lower figure, more independent people have suggested the higher); we the taxpayers of this country are footing the majority of this bill, not the scum-sucking corporate sponsors. Or are they now suggesting that we can forget about the infrastructure costs because they’re not associated with the “staging” of the games? Do me a favour. Utter crap. The games could go ahead without a single sponsor. That is fact. The IOC just love selling their wares to line their own pockets, it’s got f all to do with supporting the costs for the games.

    Anyone that tells you otherwise is a liar or a politician, or worse they’re Seb Coe.

  • John Alder

    The sponsors may have provided the Olympics with over GBP 700m worth of sponsorship. But doesn’t that sponsorship come with an obligatory cost on the taxpayer of over GBP 1 billion to pay for G4S “security”, 300 brand police and changes to legislation? Looks like a net loss to me!

  • Seriously Spain

    Thanks Karen Earl for persuading me NOT to watch the Olympics this year, or to support the companies sponsoring. In fact, I’ve just made a list of companies I will NOT be purchasing products from because of your brilliant argument. You, ma’am, are an idiot.

  • June Austin

    Have Olympic sponsorship regulations gone too far – in the village of Box Hill where I live in deepest Surrey, almost definately yes. For those who are not aware, Box Hill forms a major part of the route for both mens and women’s road cycling races, one of the first events to take place after the opening ceremony.
    As the former Editor of the village newsletter, Box Hill News I have been prevented from selling the magazine within my own village by what can only be described as petty rules.
    Box Hill News is a small village magazine staffed by volunteers, which is entirely non profit making – all monies after our own costs are taken off, go to local charities and groups, such as Help for Heroes, Tadworth Court and so on. After the road races were announced in February last year we decided to do a special Olympic issue to commemorate the games, which we hoped to sell around the ZigZag. One year on, after we had put in 100 hours of unpaid work in our own time, we were told that this was to be ticketed zone, open to official sponsors only. Selling the magazine along the road is not an option either, as regulations prohibit street trading within 2 metres of the route, and the pavements along here, where they exist are considerably narrower than that. We sadly then had to cancel the edition just 2 weeks before the copy deadline. As a result the charities and groups that we would have supported will all lose out. This saddens me greatly.
    While I understand the need to protect these so-called brands, it seems that local groups and interests are being squeezed out, as is common sense. It is not as if we are in competition with any of these brand sponsors after all, and perhaps more to the point, it is our village, and we should not have to ask permission to carry out orn business on our own turf.

  • Nicholas de Taranto

    Exactly. Faulty logic’s involved when an elderly lady’s knitted doll is equated with AmEx stealing Visa’s corporate limelight.

  • Aqil Guevara

    This PR lass is talking out of her posterior. The argument she brings is one that anyone with a modicum of judgement would understand, then dismiss. The TAXPAYER is going to be paying for the games largely, more than corporate sponsorship. And to make it even sweeter, its a present we pass to our children to carry on paying for too. Just like wars. I grew up in London, and know the East end very well. I remember when the bid was won, i was in a barbershop and was shouted down as a negative person when i said it would NOT benefit the locals and the country as a whole, only those who have direct input (LOCOG, IOC etc) Brands who are sponsoring, and the contestants really benefit. Nice to have it in the country, shame about the legacy… Ask those from Atlanta, Athens, Barcelona, and all those made homeless in Beijing.

  • I_See_Dead_Truth

    I find it somewhat baffling to notice that one of Britains largest
    companies, BP are sponsoring the London 2012 olympic team. Seems reasonable enough so far…but read on.

    “Why does this
    surprise you?” I hear you ask. For one very big reason…the team that British
    Petroleum(AKA: BP) are sponsoring are “Team USA”, not “Team GB”! Think I
    am joking…see for yourself on YouTube “”.

    Absolutely amazing!

  • I_See_Dead_Truth

    Twice I have tried to post this now and twice it has been sent to the moderators…lets try for a third time shall we?

    I find it somewhat baffling to notice that one of Britains largest
    companies, BP are sponsoring the London 2012 olympic team. Seems reasonable enough so far…but read on.

    “Why does this
    surprise you?” I hear you ask. For one very big reason…the team that British
    Petroleum(AKA: BP) are sponsoring are “Team USA”, not “Team GB”! Think I
    am joking…see for yourself on YouTube “youtube (dot) com/watch?v=dFTnvymsQA”.

    Absolutely amazing!

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