How Nike Stole The Olympics

It’s 1996, Atlanta Olympics.

Away, Johnson got a great start.

Already up on Garcia.

Look at him , he’s sprinting away.

Magnificient running.

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.

Reebok was.

But when people were asked: who was an official

Olympic partner? – more people picked Nike

than Reebok.

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

being sued.

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

IOC today.

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

US dollars.

Its organizer even made it on the cover of

Time magazine.

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

aggressive commercial.

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

the Olympics.

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

or symbol.

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

by law.

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

a circle.

Exclusive rights are followed by creative

marketing, which leads to stricter laws that

in turn incite the creativity of marketing

teams again.

From a moral perspective, it is about finding

a balance between protecting free speech and

the interests of the Olympic movement and

its partners.

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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