But now, thanks to recent changes to the 40th rule of the International Olympic Committee, brands do not have to be official sponsors to capitalise on marketing opportunities during the games.

What’s Rule 40?

The 40th rule originally stated that during the ‘blackout’, i.e. the period of time starting a few days before the games and ending a few days after, non-sponsors were forbidden from featuring or mentioning athletes in any form of advertising. 

While strict regulations still stipulate that words such as ‘Olympics’, ‘gold’, or even ‘summer’ depending on the context cannot be used, the rule was recently relaxed so that brands can run ads featuring athletes from March up until after the event. 

Who has benefitted?

It’s important to note that despite rule 40, many smaller brands have still missed out due to the strict timing stipulations and money constraints.

Brands needed to pitch ads by January, meaning that many were unable to invest so early on without the guarantee that athletes would even make it to the games.

However, for bigger brands, the opportunity has been too good to resist.

Under Armour

Under Armour, a brand that many athletes will don during Rio, has launched two adverts featuring Olympians. 

The ‘Rule Yourself’ ad starring Michael Phelps is a great example of how the brand uses storytelling to promote its core values.

Focusing on the day-to-day training regimes of athletes, it uses high-profile champions like Phelps to inspire consumers to buy into the brand.


GoPro has also capitalised on the chance to tell the compelling stories of athletes.

‘Two Roads’ is a nine-part series showcasing the journeys of nine Olympians. The character-driven and episodic nature of the series is a different move for GoPro – a brand that’s better known for action-packed, adrenalized content.

Virgin Media

Usain Bolt has been the face of Virgin Media for a while, however the brand has chosen to release an advert during a time they would have otherwise been banned. 

The ad brings to life what 9.58 seconds (his record-breaking time) feels like to Bolt, using scenarios from his childhood to bring a more personal feel to the campaign.

What happens if brands violate Rule 40?

While the relaxed regulations mean more opportunities for brands, the strict nature of the IOC means that many are in danger of breaking the rules – namely, on social media.

If a sponsor tweets good luck to an athlete or an athlete says thank you, both run the risk of being reprimanded.

The rules don’t only apply to direct mentions either.

It was recently revealed that the United States Olympic Committee sent letters to non-official sponsors warning them about stealing intellectual property (i.e. images or photographs relating to the Olympic Games).

What’s more, the committee also stipulated that companies were prohibited from using a number of trademarked hashtags, including #Rio2016 and #TeamUSA.

Many brands were left frustrated by the broad nature of the hashtags, meaning that they could not even make reference to the event in general.

It might sound like a case of bravado by the USOC, however the brand Oiselle were recently asked to take down images of Kate Grace winning at the Olympic trials due to the fact that the famous five rings were visible on the athlete’s uniform. 

While this shows that the USOC are taking the situation seriously, it will undoubtedly become even harder to regulate as the games kick off.

With backlash from brands and athletes alike beginning to build, it looks like the commitee is in for a busy few weeks online.