The most important legal consideration of the Olympic Games is the protection of intellectual property – specifically, the protection of the trademarked five Olympic rings.
Securing the rights of the use of the infamous logo is essential to ensuring the games bring in the necessary revenue, Norman Wain, general counsel for USA Track & Field, told a group of Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law students on Thursday. Wain spoke about the legal considerations surrounding the Olympics during a lecture Thursday evening at the Indianapolis law school.
The rings are the games’ greatest asset, Wain said, so they are protected vigorously to ensure that companies and individuals who pay for the rights to use the rings in their advertising as Olympic sponsors can effectively monetize their investments. Those investments are so important that when a London sausage shop put out a display with its sausages arranged in the pattern of the rings during the 2012 Olympic Games, the shop received a cease-and-desist order against the display because it did not have the rights to use the trademark.
Even sports organizations that send athletes to the Olympics must gain permission before using any sort of branding that might be owned by the International Olympic Committee or the United States Olympic Committee, Wain said.
He pointed to the annual USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships as an example of the Olympic committee’s close protection of their trademarks. The outdoor championships occur each year, but every fourth year the championships are branded as the “Olympic trials” as the country’s top track and field athletes compete for a sport on the United States Olympic team.
With the “Olympic trials” branding, the USOC allows the track and field organization temporary use of the five rings trademark, as well as the promotion of Team USA, a phrase that is also trademarked by the Olympic committee. Once the trials are over, USATF loses its rights to the marks and must wait four more years before it can advertise with the rings or “Team USA” again.
Television rights are also tied to the rights to use trademarked Olympic branding, Wain said. The USOC’s television partnership is with the NBC network, which means NBC has the rights to broadcast the games. USATF’s partnership is also with NBC, which means the network also broadcasts the annual outdoor championships.
However, if USATF had a partnership with ESPN, then the sports network would have the rights to broadcast the annual championships for three years in a row. But on the fourth year, when USATF brands its annual competition as the Olympic trials, the trials would have to be broadcast on NBC because only NBC has the right to broadcast the USOC’s trademarks through its partnership with the committee, Wain said.
The protection of the Olympic committee’s trademarks is particularly important in the United States because, unlike other national committees, the USOC is not publicly funded by the government. Thus, the rights to the trademarks and other Olympic branding are the key revenue stream for the games in the U.S., Wain said.
Aside from trademarks and intellectual property, Wain also broached the legalities of anti-doping laws, which became particularly important during the 2106 Rio Games after dozens of Russia athletes tested positive for banned substances.
Unlike the USOC, the Russian Olympic committee is publicly funded, as is its anti-doping agency. The Russian government often funnels more of its money toward the Olympic committee and much less toward its anti-doping efforts, Wain said, which results in a lower anti-doping standard in the country.
In fact, Wain said there is evidence that athletic leaders in Russia would intentionally put track and field competitors on doping regimens before a competition, wean them off the substances leading up to an event so that they would test clean at the competition, then put them back on the doping regimens when they returned home for training.
As a result, the International Association of Athletics Federations banned Russian athletes, but with a caveat – any athlete living and training in another country and subject to that country’s anti-doping laws could still compete. That meant a Russian track and field athlete who had been training in Florida was allowed to compete as a Russian athlete, even though the Russian track and field team did not compete.