It’s 1996, Atlanta Olympics.
Away, Johnson got a great start.
Already up on Garcia.
Look at him , he’s sprinting away.
Look at the time!
With that world record race, Michael Johnson
became the only man in history to win both
the 400m and 200m in the same Olympics – each
time wearing a pair of gold-colored spikes
specifically made for him by Nike.
Pictures of Johnson running the race with
his legendary golden shoes went around the
Johnson was the fastest man on earth.
Not only did millions of TV viewers see those
Nike shoes on their screens, millions also
saw those same shoes slung around Johnson’s
neck a few days later on the cover of Time
It’s hard to imagine better marketing for
any Olympic sponsor.
Only problem: Nike was not an Olympic sponsor.
But when people were asked: who was an official
Olympic partner? – more people picked Nike
Reebok had paid millions of dollars to be
the official Olympic partner, but consumers
only remembered their competitor – sounds
like a bad deal.
So Reebok ended their sponsorship with the
And the Olympics started to take actions against
Nike and other companies that were using the
Games for marketing without paying for it.
Fast forward to today, and you are not even
allowed to tweet about the Olympics without
Even baking a cake with the Olympic rings
might get you into trouble.
Why did it get so ridiculous?
It all goes back to that legendary race in
Welcome to Athletic Interest – this is the
story of how Nike hijacked the Olympics.
Hijacking is a strong word.
It also raises the question of who actually
owns the Olympics?
The easy answer: the International Olympic
Founded by Pierre de Coubertin in 1894, it
is the authority that organizes the modern
Summer and Winter Olympic Games.
Coubertin’s idea was that athletic competition
would promote understanding across cultures
and thereby lessen the dangers of war.
He also emphasized the importance of the competition
itself rather than winning.
“The important thing in life is not the
triumph but the struggle, the essential thing
is not to have conquered but to have fought
This laid the groundwork of the modern Olympic
movement, which is led and managed by the
Although criticized in recent years, the Olympic
movement is an unprecedented success story.
The Summer Olympics have grown from a couple
of hundred (241) participants representing
14 nations in 1896, to more than 11,000 competitors
representing more than 200 nations from around
the world in 2016.
Money was no issue in the beginning.
During the first half of the 20th century
the Games ran on a small budget.
Attempts to link the Olympics with commercial
interest were actually rejected.
The IOC believed the lobby of corporate interests
would unduly impact its decision-making.
But in the 70s, the Olympics struggled financially.
The Montreal Games actually made a loss of
almost one billion US dollars.
So the IOC and its new president Juan Antonio
Samaranch started looking for new revenue
streams to become financially independent.
His solution would change the sporting world
He introduced exclusivity for sponsorship
The Games have had some form of sponsorship
from their very beginnings, but for many years
anyone who wanted to become a sponsor could
arrange some sort of deal.
In theory, it was possible for both Coke and
Pepsi to sponsor the same Olympics.
Samaranch and the team for the 1984 Games
in L.A. changed that.
They started selling official global sponsorship
and broadcasting rights – that had the defining
characteristic of being exclusive.
Unofficial marketers who were either not willing
or able to pay the money to become an official
Olympic partner were kept out.
The move significantly limited the supply
of marketing opportunities around the Olympics.
And prices for the packages skyrocketed.
That revolution had two consequences.
First, the IOC made way more money than before.
The L.A. Games made a profit of over 200 million
Its organizer even made it on the cover of
And secondly, companies that were no longer
official sponsors had to get creative if they
still wanted to be seen at the Olympics.
It was the birth of ambush marketing.
The IOC describes ambush marketing as ‘a
planned attempt by a third party to associate
itself directly or indirectly with the Olympic
Games to gain the recognition and benefits
associated with being an Olympic partner.‘
To go back to our Michael Johnson example
from Atlanta: Instead of investing millions
of dollars to become an official Olympic partner,
Nike rather invested somewhere else.
In the lead up to the Games, Nike purchased
all available billboards and advertising spaces
around the Olympic venues.
That way the swoosh was picked up by TV broadcasts
and beamed into the households of billions
Of course they leveraged their top athletes
like Michael Johnson or Carl Lewis in an almost
And Nike even handed out flags to fans, guaranteeing
that the swoosh logo would be in full view
all over the Olympic venues.
But the biggest marketing stunt was building
a so-called Nike Centre in a three-story parking
garage just outside the Olympic Park.
The prime location including a retail outlet
became a huge visitor attraction.
It featured a basketball court, video theatre
and hospitality area for Nike’s sponsored
Nike’s ambush marketing in Atlanta was responsible
for the IOC taking a hard line on unofficial
brands getting anywhere close to the Olympics.
To understand what happened next, we first
have to go back to the question of who owns
When we say the IOC, that’s not entirely
Nobody can own an event.
But what you can own is the right to a name
Those are protected by intellectual property
One example would be trademarks, so the logos
that companies use to build their brands.
The Olympic properties that the IOC owns are
the Olympic rings, flag, motto, emblems, anthem,
flame and torch as well as the name.
The IOC requires all member countries to take
appropriate steps to protect these properties
But that’s not everything.
As a consequence of Nike’s ambush marketing
in Atlanta, every country that wants to host
the Games must now create special laws to
protect the event from ambush marketing.
One of the first laws of that kind was created
in the UK for the London Olympics, to prevent
people from using innovative ways of making
an association with the Games.
Yes, you heard right.
They created laws against – or let’s say
because of Nike’s marketing.
These special event laws offer very broad
protection to the organizers – sometimes to
a ridiculous extent.
Just ask the butcher from Weymouth, who was
given official warnings for putting up depictions
of five interlinked sausage rings in the lead
up to London 2012.
You were not even allowed to combine ‘2012’
and ‘London’ in one text…
So, how did Nike react to these new challenges?
On the eve of the London Olympics, Nike launched
a video campaign called ‘Find Your Greatness’.
With this ad, Nike really tested the limits
of the laws on ambush marketing.
The clip depicted everyday athletes competing
in places from around the world named London
– except London in the UK, which they could
not show due to legal reasons.
But the message was clear enough to everyone:
athletes performing in London in an ad by
A spokesperson for Adidas, the official sponsor,
attempted to downplay Nike’s campaign:
‘We have absolutely no issue with it at
There is no sign of ambush marketing.
[…] I don’t think Nike’s ad relates
to the Olympics at all’.
The Adidas spokesperson was probably less
relaxed when he realized that the Nike clip
went viral and became the most watched ad
during the Olympics – easily beating the adidas
In a study after the Olympics, 37% identified
Nike as the official Olympic sponsor and only
24% voted for Adidas.
Despite specific laws against them, Nike just
did it again.
They hijacked the public attention around
the Olympics that its official partners paid
It is a common argument that Nike and other
ambush marketers hurt the official sponsors
and in the long term the Olympic movement
itself that relies on sponsorship money.
The IOC, as guardian of the Games and leader
of the Olympic movement, has to protect the
Olympics against ambush marketing.
But on the flip side, credit also needs to
be given to the creativity of marketing campaigns
that reveal the ridiculousness of certain
intellectual property protection.
Basically, ambush marketing today works like
Exclusive rights are followed by creative
marketing, which leads to stricter laws that
in turn incite the creativity of marketing
From a moral perspective, it is about finding
a balance between protecting free speech and
the interests of the Olympic movement and
It all comes down to the question that we
asked at the beginning: Who owns the Olympics?
On paper, it might be the IOC.
But the Olympic movement is sustained by a
global public goodwill.
The Olympics and sport itself can never be
owned by anyone but its people: the athletes.
We believe everyone should be able to tell
their stories about sport.
Whether it’s a local butcher, a powerful
sports brand or some random YouTube channel.
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