Nick Symmonds is flashing his deltoid like a well-aimed middle finger at the Olympics sponsorship system this year. The media-savvy American middle-distance runner, who easily qualified to compete in the upcoming London games with a blistering 800 meters, spent recent months challenging highly controlled branding rules that he and many competitors believe reward everyone but the actual athletes.
Symmonds’ up-yours to the system began earlier this year, when he auctioned off a patch of his skin on eBay, sparking a bidding war among 85 brands wanting to advertise on his body. Milwaukee outdoor lifestyle agency Hanson Dodge Creative snagged the space for $11,100. It’s a branding coup made all the more valuable by headlines trailing the handsome 28-year-old track star ever since he convinced Paris Hilton to go on a date with him.
The tattoo is temporary, but the reasons behind Symmonds’ one-man campaign to fund himself and tweak the powers that be are lasting. The Olympics will generate $6 billion to $7 billion, possibly more, in sponsorship and advertising revenue. Yet many of the more than 10,000 athletes competing this summer struggle to get by financially.
At the upcoming Summer Games, Symmonds will continue to wear a tattoo with the agency’s Twitter handle stenciled on his left arm. Though the rules require him to cover the words @HansonDodge during meets, the swatch of white sports tape whizzing by on his muscle will be visible as a gesture of defiance to the Olympic world. “I was appalled at what was going on. Most of the financial gains of the sport are not passed along to the athletes,” says Symmonds, who also competed in the 2008 games. “So many Olympians are living below the poverty line.”
To pursue an Olympic dream, the cost of training, housing, coaching and travel reaches the low six figures, according to estimates. Yet few athletes come close to earning that. In U.S. track and field, for example, 50 percent of the top 10 competitors in each event make less than $15,000 a year in sponsorship, grants or prize money, according to a recent study by the Track and Field Athletes Association. To make up the shortfall, synchronized swimmers in California work shifts at a Santa Clara bingo hall. In New Zealand, tae kwon do athlete Logan Campbell opened an escort agency, which is legal in that country. And one of America’s top steeplechase competitors, Ben Bruce (who has bunked at Symmonds’ place in Eugene, Ore.), was forced to go on food stamps after failing to convince Nike to increase his meager stipend. What’s more, for many of these athletes, health insurance is a luxury.
“I got tons of gear, but you can’t take a Nike shirt to the grocery store and buy food with it,” says Bruce, who got a better deal after moving to Adidas.
Now more athletes are speaking out, especially on Symmonds’ Facebook page, railing against the dominance of big business and what he calls “crippled and antiquated” rules limiting advertising that can be worn or shown during competition, which limits an individual’s earnings. Ultimately, he’s speaking for many competitors when he asks the fundamental question: Who is allowed to make money off the Olympics?
The corporate money in play from sponsors and advertisers has reached stratospheric levels this year, according to Olympics marketing expert Rob Prazmark, founder and CEO of 21 Sports in Greenwich, Conn., and a founder of The Olympic Partner (TOP) program. Prazmark tallies up spending related to this year’s games: $1 billion dollars raised by the London Organizing Committee; more than $1 billion from the International Olympic Committee’s TOP sponsors; more than $200 million in U.S. Olympic Committee sponsors and another $800 million to $1 billion from other countries’ National Olympic Organizations; $1.18 billion paid by NBC for U.S. media rights; close to $1 billion sold by NBC in advertising; another $1 billion in rights fees worldwide; and more than $1 billion spent by sponsors in hospitality, promotion and athlete endorsement fees.
In this complex cash-for-rights hierarchy, the National Olympic Committees secure their own sponsors, which in the U.S. includes 22 companies that don’t always align with those appearing in London. Nike, for example, is providing Team USA’s uniforms, while Adidas is the official shoe and apparel company of the London Olympics.