Athletes take aim at Rule 40

It’s the International Olympic Committee’s version of a gag order and athletes competing in London are now saying, “We’re not gonna take it.”

Legions of sports stars are taking to the Twitter-verse with trending topics like #Rule40 and #WeDemandChange. Rule 40, one of the many IOC guidelines to which athletes must adhere during the Games, stipulates that from July 18 through Aug. 15 — a full three days after the closing ceremonies — Olympic athletes cannot capitalize on their success or popularity through sponsorships or corporate relationships. Think of it as an image blackout that hits directly at the profit bull’s eye. Precisely at the time that athletes have the best opportunity to make money, the IOC bans them from doing just that.

“It’s a form of bullying,” says agent Peter Carlisle of the Octagon Agency. Carlisle, who represents star swimmer Michael Phelps and gymnast Aly Raisman, among many other Olympians, told me Tuesday that it’s flat-out unfair. “It’s so expensive (for these athletes) to compete on the world stage. You need to pay for that. Most of the athletes are funded by either their own communities or sponsors. But Rule 40 makes it hard to get a company to invest in an athlete when they’re blacked out from capitalizing on them during potentially the most lucrative time.”

Former track star Maurice Greene took it one step further.

“They’re pimps. We’re out there competing and they’re the ones who get to make the money,” Greene said of the IOC to me.

Rule 40 has been around for years. The IOC first instituted it to send the message that Olympic athletes are very clearly amateurs, but also to protect the exclusivity of top sponsors who pay hundreds of millions of dollars for rights. However, over the years, athletes and their representatives say the rule, along with the cost of training to become an Olympian, has gone haywire and stands in the way of young stars funding their Olympic dreams.

What happens if an athlete either intentionally or unknowingly violates Rule 40? The IOC can threaten that athlete’s eligibility. And so the athletes comply and, many say, lose out.

“It obviously limited my options,” says four-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg. “Everyone else profits around you and you’re there, yet you’ve been used. You have no flexibility to use your own image.” Krayzelburg now works with Level Field Fund, which provides funding for promising athletes who can’t afford the training, equipment and travel required to make it to the Olympics. The fund was founded by gold medalist snowboarder Ross Powers, one of Carlisle’s clients. “(Powers) was a kid from Stratton. His dad died when he was younger and he had a huge funding problem. If it hadn’t been for his community stepping up, he wouldn’t have been able to get to his first Olympics in Nagano Games. You can’t qualify if you don’t have adequate financial support.” Carlisle says Powers never forgot the challenges of scraping together the money to participate. After founding Level Field, he was later joined by other stars like Phelps and Krayzelburg, both of whom are sympathetic to the difficulties of raising coin to compete.

Why is the background noise about Rule 40 suddenly getting louder? Because, says Carlisle, competing has gotten prohibitively costly and it’s simply not fair to choke off the one money pipe that flows most freely during the crucial weeks of the Olympics.

“Rules are understandable but the IOC should define a fair space. Each year the (blackout) band widens, hurting athletes. Carve out a time period, but not on both sides of the games. If athletes aren’t left with any rights, where’s the funding going to come from?”

On top of that, Carlisle says the IOC makes compliance extremely difficult by nitpicking. “I can remember representing (snowboarder) Danny Katz during the Salt Lake City Games. I got a call from the IOC that they were going to pull his eligibility because some tiny snowboard store in Park City had a poster up of Danny. I had to send someone up to Park City to have them rip it down.”

Now imagine Phelps’ issues. His agent says every single day there are multiple, unauthorized uses of the star swimmer’s image. It’s unreasonable to think Phelps can control the violations and therefore shouldn’t be bullied by the IOC about them.

The IOC has yet to address the complaints but athletes aren’t waiting. Awareness of their gripe is growing. Google “Rule 40 Olympic Complaints” and as of this week, you’ll find 32.3 million results.