USOC sends letter warning non-Olympic sponsor companies

As the Olympic Games approach, the tension between athletes and non-sponsors with the United States Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee has ratcheted up once again.

In recent weeks, the United States Olympic Committee sent letters to those who sponsor athletes but don't have any sponsorship designation with the USOC or International Olympic Committee, warning them about stealing intellectual property.

"Commercial entities may not post about the Trials or Games on their corporate social media accounts," reads the letter written by USOC chief marketing officer Lisa Baird. "This restriction includes the use of USOC's trademarks in hashtags such as #Rio2016 or #TeamUSA."

The USOC owns the trademarks to "Olympic," "Olympian" and "Go For The Gold," among many other words and phrases.

The letter further stipulates that a company whose primary mission is not media-related cannot reference any Olympic results, cannot share or repost anything from the official Olympic account and cannot use any pictures taken at the Olympics.

"The whole thing is ridiculous," said Sally Bergesen, CEO of Oiselle, which the USOC contacted after Oiselle published pictures of athlete Kate Grace after she won the 800 meters at the trials earlier this month.

Oiselle sanitized the photos by blurring images of Olympic property but decided to leave the blogs up.

While the USOC argues that money from sponsors and licensees who pay for the rights allow them to support athletes to go to the Games, Bergesen says the stringent rules hurt the athletes because companies that can't support them during the Games can't afford to pay them because of lack of promotion.

"It costs $300,000 to send an Olympian to the Games, and for our athletes, the USOC has reimbursed them about 1 percent of that cost," Bergesen said. "Is that supporting them?"

Baird says that athletes can support a non-sponsor during the Games and a non-sponsor can support an athlete -- they just can't mention anything about the Olympics specifically.

"We need to give sponsors exclusivity to our intellectual property that is protected by U.S. law," Baird said.

This is the first Olympics in which the IOC has relaxed its long-standing Rule 40, in which non-sponsors and athletes can't mention their relationship for a monthlong period in and around the Games.

As part of a new compromise, the IOC, in concert with the USOC, allowed companies that did not have an official relationship to run ads during the Games so long as those ads started running in March and ran continuously through the Games.

Baird wouldn't say how many companies had their ads approved and decided to commit to the five-month window, but she said it was a "significant number."

Bergesen said that smaller companies don't have the luxury to do that, which means it doesn't benefit them nor their athletes.

"A company like Under Armour can do that because they know that Michael Phelps is going to be in the Games," Bergesen said. "We don't know in January which one of our athletes is going to make the Games."

New Balance isn't a USOC or IOC sponsor but had more than 70 of its athletes qualify for the Games.

"We find the IOC's Rule 40 extremely frustrating and challenging to work with as a brand which wants to celebrate the many amazing achievements of our hard-working global athletes," said New Balance spokesperson Amy Dow. "It is also unfortunate that many athletes do not have the freedom or opportunity to support the brands that support them."

Baird said that companies take the hardship out of context.

"Athletes can certainly generically say, 'Thank you for your support' during the Games," Baird said. "But a company that sells a sports drink certainly can't post something from the Games on their social media page or website. They're doing nothing but using the Olympics to sell their drink. That's entirely different from what say, ESPN is doing, which is clearly defined as journalism."