The Real Battle for Olympic™ Gold

Athletes seek their own piece of the action amid corporate takeover of the games

For years, Puma has been one of the most notable players jumping into the Olympic ring without invitation. At the Atlanta Games in 1996, sprinter Linford Christie wore contact lenses emblazoned with Puma’s logo, though Reebok was the official shoe sponsor. The stealth approach worked: The company’s leaping-feline icon staring out from Christie’s eyeballs made front-page news.

Puma is at it again this year, sponsoring high-profile athletes including Jamaican sprinter and three-time gold medalist Usain Bolt, who is signed to what is reportedly the highest track sponsorship in history at close to $32 million for four years. In June, the Germany-based sports company unveiled its plans for Puma Yard on Brick Lane in East London, a gathering spot that will operate from July 27 to Aug. 12, in conjunction with the games. But Puma’s press release studiously avoids protected brand words like Olympics, noting that big screens will be available for morning and evening viewing sessions, without noting what exactly those sessions might be. The press release ends with a double entendre: “Let the Games Begin.” The London Organizing Committee immediately launched an investigation.

Outsider companies that elbow in without paying infuriate the Olympic movement. But even official sponsors have been known to employ some questionable tactics. This spring, a group of 20 Olympic athletes, including former greats Mark Spitz, Dara Torres and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, sued TOP sponsor Samsung for using their names and images without permission in the company’s much-publicized Genome Project. The Facebook app allows fans to see how they’re connected to famous Olympians past and present. But they say the company never asked for the rights to use their images and names.

“I would have thought someone in the room, at some point, would have said, ‘I think we need to get written consent from the athletes,’” says attorney Rich Foster, who filed the lawsuit asking for undisclosed damages on behalf of the sports heroes. “I think some companies are just getting careless.”

The lawsuit likely won’t settle until after the Summer Games, Foster predicts, since current athletes must now focus on training. Samsung declined to comment, citing pending litigation. But clearly, it’s an unflattering picture for an elite Olympic sponsor to be sued by the very athletes who are the movement’s lifeblood, especially since so many of them are shut out of the financial frenzy.

“For the majority of Olympic athletes, it’s very difficult to get sponsorships and make a living,” says Foster. “They need to protect their rights.”

Part of that sense of entitlement stems from the corporate enterprise that the Olympics have become. Without sponsorship, the Olympics would probably have ceased to exist in the early 1980s when the games went into a tailspin. Montreal went bankrupt after the 1976 games and Moscow was a disaster in 1980 due to the American boycott. But in 1984, Peter Ueberroth, president of the Los Angeles Organizing Committee, relied on private financing, primarily corporate sponsorship and television rights, to turn a profit. The games never looked back.

“The Olympics were in serious financial trouble and under Ueberroth, the change was made on how to approach corporate sponsorship differently,” says Allen Brooks, a marketing consultant and co-founder of Running Waters Group, who has worked both on the organizing and sponsor side of the games. “The Olympics as a brand, a logo, a movement are one of the most recognized symbols globally. There’s a strong desire to be involved in a movement like that.”

With the lull in big summer sports events, the Olympics become that much more attractive to advertisers, according to Tom McGovern, managing director of Omnicom’s Optimum Sports. “When summer begins, households just watch less TV. This is one of those TV events that galvanizes the whole family to watch,” he says, noting that media buyers will be tracking how NBC’s hundreds of hours of digital streaming affect prime-time broadcast ratings.

Measuring the return on sponsor and advertiser investment can be tricky. This summer, social media will allow more tracking than ever before says, Joe Favorito, who teaches advanced sports marketing and communications at Columbia University. “That’s why a lot of top sponsors enlisted more athletes in more diverse sports. They are covering the athletes no one’s picked off yet.”

Despite broader sponsor interest, even successful Olympians can struggle. Marathoner Meb Keflezighi won a silver medal in Athens, becoming the first U.S. man to medal in the marathon since Frank Shorter won a silver in 1976. Yet Nike dropped him in 2010.

“They thought he was over the hill,” says his brother and agent Merhawi Keflezighi. “It could have ended his career. But luckily, Meb had enough of a profile that we had interest from other companies.”

The 37-year-old marathoner signed a unique type of deal with Skechers that allowed him to wear other corporate logos while skipping penalties for bad performance. (When competing in London, Keflezighi must don his U.S. team uniform designed by Nike, wearing the logo of the company that dumped him two years ago. However, he can wear his Skechers shoes, which are considered equipment.) Nike did not respond to requests for comment.

Yet most contenders don’t have the leverage of an Olympic marathon medalist. Steeplechaser Bruce has been scraping by, but not everyone is willing to live that way. “Every single year, I see athletes leaving the sport because they can’t make it,” says Bruce, who failed in his Olympic trials bid. And then there are savvy game-players like Nick Symmonds, who ran like something out of Chariots of Fire at the trials and has turned his rage against the machine into a promotion powerhouse—even while enjoying a Nike contract.

Though the @HansonDodge tattoo is covered during meets, he talks up the feisty Milwaukee firm in interviews, landing the sponsor’s name in media ranging from Fox and NBC to Sports Illustrated—all before the Olympics even begin.

With all that attention, the company’s Facebook likes, Twitter followers and hits on its website have skyrocketed, adding up to a marketing value that Sara Meaney, president of strategy and growth, pegged at $500,000 to $1 million. “This is already shaping up as a game changer for us,” she says. “Did we skirt the limitations? Yes—that’s part of our job. This opportunity is unprecedented for us, and unprecedented for Nick.”