Can Olympic Athletes Be Sponsored? The Rio Games Are Experiencing Some Rule Changes

The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil are nearly upon us — the opening ceremony will be kicking things off at Rio's Maracanã Stadium on Aug. 5, and the games will be running until the closing ceremony on Aug. 21. And with the start of the competition just days away, it's easy to understand why you might be thirsty for more information — you only get one Summer Olympics every four years, after all. So here's a question: can Olympic athletes be sponsored by corporations to help pay the prices of training, travel, and competition? Is it even allowed?

Historically, the answer has been somewhat complicated. Up until the 1970s, the International Olympic Committee held a firm requirement of amateurism for Olympic athletes — that in order to compete, you could not be a paid professional. An NBA player couldn't lace up for Olympic basketball, for example. Additionally, you could not be the recipient of a corporate sponsorship. That language was removed in 1971, eventually giving rise to a system that allowed corporate sponsors, but with some heavy and often-confusing rules and stipulations.

Basically, you could have a corporate sponsor, but you couldn't publicly promote a company during the Olympics that wasn't itself an official Olympic sponsor. So, for example, you could be in an ad for Coca-Cola, or Visa, or McDonald's, but not Pepsi, or MasterCard, or Burger King. And that's only on the big business side of things — countless smaller companies that might sponsor individual athletes were also frozen out of the equation.

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This time around, however, things will be a little different. As Christine Birkner detailed for AdWeek last month, there's been a rule change for the Rio games, which will allow some non-Olympic sponsor companies (who filed waivers with the IOC by a late January deadline) to feature Olympians in their ads. Ostensibly, giving the athletes themselves some more money and exposure, too.

There are still some restrictions on what the ads can portray, however. For starters, they can't draw an explicit connection between the athlete and the Olympics — in fact, non-sponsor companies aren't allowed to have words like "Olympics," "Rio," or even "gold" in them at all.

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Instead, they have to feature an athlete either performing their craft or hawking a product without any direct reference to the reason they're on the world stage. Awkward, huh? For what it's worth, athletes will also be allowed to start tweeting about non-sponsor companies, which was also previously forbidden, although the same restrictions about mentioning the Olympics apply.

So, in short, the answer is yes! Olympians can indeed have corporate sponsorships. But the rules surrounding them are complicated and stringent enough for some smaller businesses to view them as prohibitive. In other words, the rules are a bit murky, especially for smaller, lesser known corporate sponsors.