Patrick Nally: Let the ‘fashion wear’ games begin
The Olympic Games is a time when fierce competition ensues between the sportswear giants, so it was very opportune that I was able to reminisce recently with my old friend, John Boulter, who spent many years in senior posts at both Adidas and Reebok.
Both John and I have seen first-hand the challenges facing athletes, sport federations and event organisers, as sport has become more professional and the sporting goods industry has grown in power and influence.
Things were so much simpler before 1960, when manufacturers’ logos were not allowed on any Olympic competitor’s strip. It was a time when athletes received little or no pay and National Olympic Committees (NOCs) were grateful to get anything free or at a special price.
Today, the situation is totally different. There is much more money for all the ‘players’ in the Olympic arena. Sportswear companies are better organised and much more aware of the impact on sales of using top athletes to promote their brands.
The biggest challenge when it comes to the Olympic Games is the conflict that has arisen between the demands and the needs of the different participating factions.
"Sportswear companies are better organised and much more aware of the impact on sales of using top athletes to promote their brands"
The individual athletes, for most of the year, will be supported by their own selected manufacturer. The national governing bodies of the individual sports (NGBs) also seek funding and resources from sporting goods manufacturers, as do the NOCs.
The local organising committee (LOC), which is funding the organisation of the Games, also has its interests, not to mention the needs of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the international sport federations (IFs).
All this creates pressure and who decides who wears what becomes a challenge, which sometimes ends in dispute.
John tells me he was never aware of any form of a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between the manufacturers. Although Adidas were conscious of the activities of all their competitors, they never entered into any formal agreements with them as there was always a tacit understanding in the industry that chaos and anarchy would ensue if one company encouraged an athlete or a team to go against the contracted obligations of their governing body.
The Olympic Charter gives decision making rights in local markets to the NOCs. These decisions will depend on the relationship and balance of power between the NOC and the NGB’s in each market and, in the case of London 2012, Locog.
In the USA, for example, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) has always delegated the choice of competition clothing to the NGBs while reserving the right to provide its own ‘official tracksuit’ to be worn by all US Olympic athletes at formal ceremonies and medal presentations.
"It goes without saying that companies like Adidas and Nike will be planning a great deal of publicity before, during and after the Games to promote their assets"
On the other hand, the British Olympic Association (BOA) has retained the right to provide equipment for athletes in all Olympic sports. In this case a clear distinction has to be made between ‘technical equipment’ which an athlete can choose for himself (shoes tend to fall into this category) and ‘general equipment’ (such as uniforms, bags and blazers) which the BOA can provide.
The Adidas sponsorship of both Locog and the BOA gives Adidas clear rights to provide clothing for the organisation of the 2012 Games and clothing for Team GB. These agreements do not give Adidas the right to supply technical equipment to British Olympic stars such as Paula Radcliffe, Mo Farah and Mark Cavendish. Technical equipment required by the athletes remains their personal choice.
Due to the size of the sport equipment and apparel market, and the generally competitive nature of the main brands, it goes without saying that companies like Adidas and Nike will be planning a great deal of publicity before, during and after the Games to promote their assets.
All of these companies will be well aware of Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter, which forbids athletes from appearing in advertising that clashes with the official sponsors of the Games and the official national clothing. The only exception to this rule is ‘competition and technical equipment’. Even so, during medal ceremonies and other non-competition activities, athletes must wear their national team kit, not their competition/technical equipment kit.
Inevitably there have been famous instances in the past where conflicts have arisen. John and I were amused to recall the 1992 Games in Barcelona when NBA basketball players participated for the first time. The US ‘Dream Team’ won gold and wore Reebok jackets to collect their medals due to the brand’s USOC deal. However, some players were sponsored personally by other companies and, rather than be seen endorsing a competitor, they covered up the Reebok logo by wrapping themselves in the American flag on the podium.
There was also the occasion in Atlanta 1996 when Irish athlete Sonia O’Sullivan was caught up in an authority clash between the Irish NOC and Irish Track & Field Federation and had to change her vest in the tunnel leading to the track.
Given the multi-layered commercial interests, no doubt people will continue to try and flout the rules but generally, for London 2012, I think we will see a consistency in the understanding of the leading manufacturers. They are, after all, powerful corporations who know exactly how to promote and project their brand images and will continue to look for ways to make their presence felt at the Olympic Games. Whether this is by attempts at ambush marketing’ or by creating lounges for entertainment that do not conflict with any contractual agreements, it makes the Games more interesting.
Patrick Nally, co-founder of West Nally, has pioneered innovation in the sports marketing industry throughout his career. His next column will appear in the July edition of SportsPro. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.
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