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Joyriding the Olympics is more than a spectator sport

As athletes start their final preparations for the Olympic Games in Athens, ambush marketers have other ideas on their mind -- how to hijack the biggest sporting event in the world. Legal and brand guru Ardi Kolah looks at the measures brand owners can expect to face for 'joyriding' the Athens Olympic Games this August.

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The Olympics is the biggest multi-sport event on the globe with a global audience of nearly 4bn viewers in more than 200 countries and territories.

It's easy to see why global brand owners like Kodak, Visa, Swatch, GE, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, NBC and more recently Atos Origin, as well as the Chinese brand owner Le Novo want to associate themselves with the greatest show on Earth.

And the asking price to become The Olympic Partner is an eye watering $65m (£35.7m) for the quadrennium (winter and summer Olympic Games).

You'll then need to multiply this at least four times to see what investment brand owners also need to make to promote their association with the Games.

However, unlike many other sponsored sports events such football, tennis or F1, no form of advertising or signage is permitted whatsoever within the Olympic arenas. So the exploitation of the intellectual property rights that brand owners have acquired for such vast sums of money has to take place around the event in order to make the linkage visible to the public eye.

Given the enormous prestige that the Olympics attracts, it's little wonder that brand owners want to jump on the Olympic bandwagon even though they haven't got a ticket for the ride. This art of joyriding is what's known as ambush marketing.

For example, at Salt Lake City, virtually every ice hockey team wore kit emblazoned with the famous "Swoosh" logo and yet Nike was not an official sponsor of the Winter Olympics in 2002.

The same company bought up billboard space along the entire route of a London Marathon, spending more money ambushing the event than the cost of official sponsor rights. Nike also ambushed Converse, the official Olympic shoe sponsor at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, by endorsing high-profile athletes like Carl Lewis and painting portraits on buildings.

This may seem like a long time ago but the threat of ambush marketing at the Athens Olympic Games in August 2004 is a very real one, according to the IOC in Geneva.

"We take ambush marketing very seriously. We must promote and protect our TOP sponsors who are our global partners around the world.

"We have to protect their category exclusivity and their marketing rights, such as the use of the Olympic rings on pack and in promotions. So globally, we've a big job to do. We also have to protect our broadcast holders so that means we have to monitor infringement activity by other broadcasters and non-rights holders using Olympic marks and other intellectual property on web sites. And this kind of infringement activity increases the closer we get to the Games."

The IOC has vast experience in combating such ambush marketing activities and the Olympic Games in Sydney 2000 is widely credited as being one of the most successful in terms of combating ambush marketing.

Jeremy Summers, one of the world's leading intellectual property lawyers and founder of SK Sport and Entertainment, was an advisor to the Sydney Games.

"You can't stop ambush marketing completely -- but there are several tried and tested ways that the local Olympic organising committee can use to protect its rights and those of its partners," explains Summers.

These include:

  • draconian legislation (no fly zones over stadia; stop and seizure powers around all Olympic venues);

  • agreement with local commerce (for example the outdoor advertising authorities);

  • an education program for licensees, retailers, police, customs as to official Olympic merchandise;

  • clean venue monitoring;

  • ticketing terms and conditions;

  • agreements with all sponsors and suppliers;

  • the suspension of competition laws;

  • and a dedicated team of people on the ground.

    However, Athens has been "challenging" from many perspectives as already widely reported in the media because it hasn't always run with the precision of a Swiss watch.

    "Sometimes ambush marketing can come from within the Olympic movement itself from those who are official sponsors," explains the IOC.

    This occurs where there is illegal or inappropriate use of the Olympic marks, such as the Olympic rings broken up graphically on TV broadcasts or where the brand owner strays outside its legal rights related to the product category awarded to it.

    For example, TOP sponsors such as Panasonic, Samsung and Kodak have category exclusivity for only certain types of products. So if Samsung strayed into the territory of the other two brand owners by promoting TV sets and picture mobile phones, it would be in trouble.

    Such acts of infringement don't necessarily lead to legal action, financial penalties or much worse but a gentle rap on the knuckles and a cease and desist letter from the Olympic marketing /Meridian department.

    And there's more room for confusion because local (Athens Olympic Games) sponsors can't promote their goods and services outside their local territory for risk of infringing the marketing rights of the TOP sponsors. Local partners only enjoy marketing rights in their domestic markets.

    So Alpha Bank, Hyundai cars or Heineken can't market their products on the back of the Athens Olympics to viewers in the UK.

    It all adds up to a very confusing picture of marketing and legal rights. Navigating the thicket of these IOC rules and regulations is a game in its own right -- of Olympic proportions.

    Ardi Kolah is ranked in the top 50 thinkers in marketing in the world by the Chartered Institute of Marketing. He is the author of 'Maximising the Value of Sponsorship' (Sport Business, £595), 'Maximising Revenue from Licensing and Merchandising' (£675) and 'Essential Law for Marketers' (Butterworth Heinemann, £25).

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