Geneva • In a win for athletes over Olympic restrictions, a German anti-trust agency has ruled that “abusive” limits on games-time promotional activities should be relaxed.
The Olympic Charter's rules are "too far-reaching and thus constitute abusive conduct," the Federal Cartel Office said in an initial judgment on Wednesday.
The judgment gives athletes in Germany — home nation of the International Olympic Committee's president, Thomas Bach — more rights to earn money when interest peaks in most of their sports.
"As the games mark the height of their sporting careers, self-marketing during the games plays a very important role," said Andreas Mundt, president of the German agency.
International athletes have long been frustrated by the charter Rule 40 bylaw, which has roots in the Olympics’ amateur tradition.
It says "no competitor ... may allow his person, name, picture or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games" without an exemption from the IOC executive board.
At the 2012 London Olympics, United States team members campaigned against IOC marketing restrictions using the hashtag "wedemandchange."
In one vivid image, 100-meter hurdles silver medalist Dawn Harper posted a photo on Twitter of her mouth gagged by tape marked "Rule 40."
It is unclear how a German national ruling can help athletes worldwide promote their personal sponsors at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Still, it will likely be seized on by unions and advocates for athlete rights to challenge Olympic restrictions in the 18 months before a Summer Games in commercially dynamic Japan.
The German agency noted that athletes do not get a direct share of International Olympic Committee revenue — worth $5.7 billion from 2013-16 — and should promote themselves.
"While athletes are the key figures of Olympic Games, they cannot benefit directly from the IOC's high advertising revenue generated with official Olympic sponsors," Mundt said.
The existing commercial limits span a "frozen period" of nine days before the Olympics open until three days after the closing ceremony.
In Germany, exceptions could be applied for at least three months in advance if the advertising campaign had already begun and did not use "Olympic-related terms."
"It is now allowed to use terms like 'medal, gold, silver, bronze, winter or summer games,'" the cartel office said.
The IOC's position is that Rule 40 protects the exclusivity and value of its own sponsor deals which help fund the games, athlete training and sports bodies worldwide.
"It ensures that the whole world can come together at the games," the Olympic body said in a statement.
As part of the judgment, the IOC and German Olympic committee agreed to concessions that "considerably enhance advertising opportunities for German athletes and their sponsors."
Athletes in Germany can now use some Olympic language and images from competitive events, and use social media more freely, including tothank sponsors.
On athlete union leader suggested the IOC had "nothing to fear" when athletes — not teams or sports bodies — were key to driving interest on social media platforms.
"If the Olympic movement wants to remain relevant and maximize its audience, it needs athletes to be the drivers of the Olympic message," Brendan Schwab, executive director of the World Players Association, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
The IOC gave little hint of changing its strategy as it welcomed the ruling's acceptance that stopping ambush marketing is a legitimate aim.
“With its decision, the [agency] recognized that there are legitimate reasons for restricting individual athletes’ advertising opportunities in order to ensure the ongoing organization of the Olympic Games,” the IOC said. “At the same time, any implementation of Rule 40 at the national level necessarily has to take all applicable laws and regulations as well as pertinent case law into account, in this instance, particular German case law.”
The revised guidelines in Germany will stay in place through the 2026 Winter Olympics, the IOC said.
The IOC’s statement did not address questions about how the ruling could affect keeping the stricter version of Rule 40 in other countries. The issue can be addressed by the IOC executive board in Lausanne, Switzerland, at a March 26-28 meeting.