In 1986 the distinctions between “amateur” and “professional” status were deleted from the Olympic charter. Where once the debate was over the purity of amateur sport, now the fracas over money centers on who will profit, the “partners ” —who pay huge amounts for exclusive advertising rights--or the athletes, many of whom struggle to support themselves during their training. Guess who the current system favors? You guessed right—Coca-cola, Panasonic, Adidas and their kin. “Rule 40” prohibits athletes from engaging in “advertising activities” during and just before the games. This means, for example, that Nick Symmonds has to tape over his Hanson Dodge Tattoo while he competes.
photo by Donald Gruener
The rule is piously worded to suggest it exists to protect athletes from being exploited by “ambush marketers.” In fact, it originally existed to protect the amateur status of sport, and (when the Russians demonstrated how hard that is to define) it was co-opted to protect the profits of the partners.
Why am I commenting on this on a fencing blog? After all, even if Tim Morehouse did make the list of “7 Creative Ways Pro Athletes Fund Their Way to the Olympics,” his most notorious strategy (that of building a personal brand) sometimes did not involve any clothing at all.
I'm commenting because, despite the abolition of the “amateur status” requirement, some people still act as if individual athlete accepting sponsorships, and crediting these supporters visibly and publicly (on their clothing or their skin), is inappropriate.
Personally, I think that position is B.S. Increasingly, so do Olympic athletes, who are mounting a social media campaign to protest the rigidity of the rule. (The swimmers are brilliantly managing to evade the rule, and the design firm Rizon is wittily rallying popular support for the protest, inviting the public to download and personalize “unofficial Olympic Supporter” posters.)
Working in the museum field, I am very familiar, and comfortable, with the tradition of “naming rights” for donors. You can’t keep art, or sport, “pure” by creating an artificial separation between money and the artist or athlete. Someone is going to profit, and some of that funding should go to the people with the talent doing all the hard work.
I say celebrate the individuals and companies generous or canny enough to back our competitors.
Photo of Tim Mueller, '85, left, with "sponsorship patches" at the 2009 Yale Fencing Association Dernell Every Competition. On the right, Andrew Holbrook, '10.
It is both appropriate and, potentially, visually interesting. The fencer as NASCAR car. I like it.
And tell Badger Balm that if they are willing to sponsor my way to a NAC, I’ll happily wear a temporary tattoo in their honor. If their spokesanimal were a proper British badger rather than the American variety, I’d even consider making it permanent ☺.