Top Team GB athletes – including sprinters Adam Gemili and Katarina Johnson-Thompson and distance runners Laura Muir and Sir Mo Farah – are launching legal action over what they have branded “unjust” marketing rules which limit them in publicly acknowledging their sponsors during the Olympic Games.
The action centres on the British Olympic Association’s interpretation of “Rule 40” of the Olympic Charter, which governs an athlete’s ability to engage with their own commercial partners during the Games.
Initially designed to prevent official sponsors from so-called guerrilla marketing by rivals , Rule 40 has long been a bone of contention among athletes as it blocks them from promoting their personal backers at the most prominent moment of their careers.
However, that stance was softened earlier this year after action from a group of German athletes and the International Olympic Committee subsequently relaxed the rules, allowing the individual national Olympic committees to decide on how the regulation is applied.
Under the BOA interpretation, athletes are only allowed to post one tweet of thanks to each sponsor during the Olympics, however, the post is permitted from including any Olympic branding, mentions of medals or imagery of the GB kit.
Gemili, who is a BOA Athletes Commission member, told Sportsmail: “It’s with sadness that we are having to now take legal action against the BOA but their lack of willingness to have an open and sensible conversation about Rule 40 has led us to this point.
“We are not asking for anything over and above, we just want the same regulations that our peers have. The German and US Olympic Associations have acknowledged the updated IOC rulings and supported their athletes but the BOA are not doing this.
“We acknowledge the good work the BOA does and we are not asking for any money, not even for prize money, which most other countries provide. We are only asking for parity and an equal opportunity on our marketing rights.
“There are a lot of athletes interested in what we are doing. I fully believe all of the British team – summer, winter, Olympic and Paralympic athletes – will be behind this.”
The BOA insists it needs to raise in over £60m for each Olympics – which comes mostly from lucrative sponsorship deals – so wants to maintain the “exclusivity” enjoyed by the big backers.
But the group led by Gemili claims the BOA’s stance is “unjust”, pointing out that many athletes rely solely on sponsorship and other jobs to finance their Olympic campaigns.
UK Sport contributes funding of £21,000-£28,000 a year to select athletes, who do not receive payments for medals. Among the athletes’ demands – which have already been afforded to the Germans – are for the BOA to allow new advertising activities during the Games and permit use of terms like “medal, gold, silver, bronze, winter or summer games”.
They also want to be able to use social media more freely during the Games and have some content shared and combined with messages of greeting or thanks to their sponsors.
Gemili added: “We had conversations (with the BOA) and were told changes would come out, to just hang tight. To see what resulted from that, which is basically one ‘thank you’ post and a slight change in submission dates is very disappointing to say the least. It is ridiculous. It changes nothing. It has got to the situation where we will take a stand and take legal action because it is unjust and unlawful.”
A BOA spokesperson said: ‘[Our] funding model is different to many other National Olympic Committees, who receive direct government funding. Rule 40 is an IOC rule which we apply in our territory and is the protection that allows us to fund such activities for all athletes, regardless of their sport, status or personal sponsors.
“We acknowledge the statement made by a number of athletes today and will continue our ongoing dialogue with our Athletes’ Commission and the wider athlete community in relation to this important matter.
“In the meantime we will continue to work hard to raise the vital funds needed to enable us to fulfil our ambitions for the team going to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.”