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Ruled Out

A controversial I.O.C. rule prohibits athletes from promoting sponsors at the games.

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Imagine for a moment that U.S. Freeskiing Team athlete and Olympic hopeful Nick Goepper steps up and wins slopestyle gold next month in Sochi, Russia [editor ‘s note: Goepper won bronze]. Goepper, a savvy social-media user like so many modern freeskiers, then takes to Twitter to thank his family, coaches, and sponsors—like Smith Optics. No problem, right?

Wrong. If he tags a brand like Smith, which is not an official Olympic sponsor, Goepper risks being fined or even disqualified by the International Olympic Committee. For 28 days surrounding the Winter Olympics—January 30 to February 26—athletes may not publicize brands that don’t sponsor the Games.

It’s an old regulation from the IOC’s charter called Rule 40, and with the rise of social media, it has become controversial.

While a brand that does not hold Olympic rights may issue a restrained public congratulation to its medal-winning athlete on her or his Olympic performance, it may not, for example, launch a social campaign promoting that athlete during the blackout period. And that athlete may not, according to Rule 40, “allow his person, name, picture, or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games.”

With freeskiing making its Olympic debut, ski-industry brands that have underwritten these athletes for years are understandably frustrated.

“As a brand that has supported halfpipe and slopestyle skiers from day one,” says Gabe Schroder, Smith Optics’ senior promotions manager, “we are now unable to promote our athletes during the biggest month of their careers.”

Athletes protested the rule after the London Olympics in 2012. American hurdler Lashinda Demus took to Twitter as part of the #WeDemandChange campaign, telling reporters, “It’s clear the Olympics are a profit-driven event and this should be an issue on the table that we talk about and find a solution for.”

Despite the outcry, the IOC made no changes to the rule after London. Rule 40, it says, was initially implemented to keep the Games clear of excess commercialism and to support the companies that do sponsor the Olympics.

“Corporate sponsorship provides essential support for competing athletes and contributes to the overall success of the Games,” says IOC spokeswoman Sandrine Tonge. “The majority of athletes rely on this funding and do not have the chance to be supported all year long by commercial partners.”

The attention, Tonge says, should be on the athletics, not the advertising. “The IOC has a clean-venue policy, which ensures that no advertising can appear in the Olympic venues. It’s one of the elements that makes the Games unique and ensures that the focus is on the athletes’ performance.”

Not everyone, of course, sees it that way. 

“The IOC wants to use the athletes’ celebrity for free in order to promote their Games and the companies who contribute financially to those Games,” says one snow-sports-industry team manager who asked to remain anonymous. “Meanwhile, they railroad out the smaller [ski-industry] companies that support these athletes year-round by inflicting unreasonable restrictions.”

Some brands, like Atomic (a non-sponsor), have sought creative ways to navigate around Rule 40. Chris McKearin, the brand’s freeski sports marketing manager, came up with a hashtag campaign, #soski, to give Atomic a way to talk about Sochi and the Olympics on social media more discreetly.

“For us,” McKearin says, “the Games are about skiing: racing, park skiing, moguls, and aerials unified on the world stage for the first time. We wanted to communicate that within the limitations of the rules.”

But when McKearin learned before launching the campaign that soski means “nipples” in Russian, he altered Atomic’s plans. “It has become a great joke here at the offices, but in the end we chose a more internationally acceptable campaign,” McKearin says. “We just want to make sure our athletes aren’t scared into leaving their phones at their hotels. These Olympics will be the mobile Games and we want to make sure our athletes are participating in the global conversation.”

And if London is any example—Twitter reported 150 million Olympic-related tweets during the 16-day event—the Games will be indeed be mobile. Nowadays, professional athletes are constantly communicating with fans online, and since many of them are contractually required to promote their sponsors in social media, the hardest part of Rule 40 may be tempering their usual behavior.

 “Freeskiing is a new Olympic sport and these athletes are 100 percent driven by social media. It’s second nature to them,” says Michael Spencer, vice president of Wasserman Media Group and an agent to Olympic freeski hopefuls Simon Dumont, Torin Yater-Wallace, and others. “If they post something they shouldn’t, it’s not like they’ll be doing it to say, ‘Screw you, IOC.’ They’ll be doing it because it’s what they’ve always done.”

For his part, American slopestyle and halfpipe competitor Gus Kenworthy, whose sponsors include Atomic and Nike, seems unconcerned. “If I make it to Sochi, it will be my first Olympics. I’m not too worried about Rule 40. I think it seems forced when athletes are constantly tagging their sponsors in social-media posts anyway. Plus, I think my sponsors understand the rule and I will tag them before and after the Games.”

And Smith’s Schroder concedes that Rule 40 “is what it is, so we are not getting too bent out of shape, and we are looking forward to seeing our athletes represent in Sochi.”

After all, during those 28 days, athletes will have much bigger issues to think about than what they can and cannot say online.

Former #SkiingMag editor #MeganMichelson is a Tahoe-based writer who would like to thank the family, friends, and sponsors who make her career possible.