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Athletes seek to loosen sponsorship rules at Olympics

Matt Rourke / AP

U.S. runner Sanya Richards-Ross wants the the International Olympic Committee to loosen its policy barring Olympic athletes from using their names or likenesses for advertising during the games.

Money is probably not a worry for Sanya Richards-Ross. She has endorsement deals with BMW and Nike Inc. and is married to Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Aaron Ross, who will earn $15 million over the next three seasons.

But there are restrictions on what Richards-Ross and other Olympians can promote at the London Games. That has upset some competitors, who want organizers to change the policy — especially to help athletes without lucrative sponsorship deals.

"I've been very fortunate to do very well around the Olympics, but so many of my peers struggle in this sport. And I just think it's unjust," Richards-Ross, an American sprinter, said Monday.

Richards-Ross, who also sells autographed photos and posters on her Web site, was among the athletes taking part in a Twitter campaign, using the hashtags "WeDemandChange2012" and "Rule40."

Rule 40 is the International Olympic Committee policy barring Olympic athletes from using their names or likenesses for advertising during the games. The rule is in effect from July 18 through Aug. 15, three days after the closing ceremony.

The International Olympic Committee says it pours 94 percent of its commercial revenue back into sports, and is only trying to protect the money that comes into the Olympic movement.

"A huge number of 10,500 athletes who are here would understand why we are doing this," spokesman Mark Jones said. "For one month, we ask them not to endorse products not related to the Olympics that don't actually give money back to the movement."

Sponsorship is everywhere at the Olympics — but official sponsors only.

Richards-Ross spoke at a U.S. Track and Field news conference in the Main Press Centre at Olympic Park, where someone setting up the room neatly arranged bottles of Coca-Cola and Powerade on the dais.

A banner at a park entrance reads: "There would be no goosebumps, gasps, pounding hearts, tears of joy, records smashed, strangers hugged, or a whole world brought together without," followed by the logos of McDonald's Corp., Adidas and Procter & Gamble Co.

That may explain why U.S. flag-bearer and fencing gold medalist Mariel Zagunis was allowed to post this to her social media accounts: "Big thanks to P&G for taking care of my mom when she flew in early to watch me carry the flag in the Opening Ceremony!"

P&G has a facility in London to host families of U.S. athletes, offering food, drink, laundry and salon services. U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Patrick Sandusky said a comment like Zagunis' is permissible if the sponsor has requested a waiver from the U.S. Olympic Committee on the International Olympic Committee's behalf.

Richards-Ross said only 2 percent of American athletes can tweet about their sponsors because they have U.S. Olympic Committee or International Olympic Committee sponsors.

With the games generating billions of dollars, "Athletes just want to be considered," she said. "The Olympic reality and the Olympic ideal ... right now are different."

The Twitter campaign and International Olympic Committee response dominated part of the U.S. Track and Field news conference Monday, prompting U.S. Track and Field spokeswoman Jill Geer to good-naturedly remind reporters that "we also have a track meet coming up."

After the news conference, Richards-Ross said she was headed to a sponsor appearance with British oil giant BP PLC — an IOC sponsor.

Seats dedicated to those with Olympic ties that have gone empty may now go to military members and students. Meanwhile, a soggy Sunday sent cyclists to the mud. NBC's Chris Jansing reports.