A group of Team GB’s leading athletes have launched an extraordinary threat of legal action against the British Olympic Association following a row over sponsorship rules.
European champion sprinter Adam Gemili is fronting a high-profile group of 20 athletes, including Mo Farah, Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Laura Muir, who are challenging the legality of commercial regulations being imposed by the same organisation that will fund its team of almost 400 British athletes at the Tokyo Olympics next summer.
The disagreement centres on Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter and how an athlete’s personal commercial partners can be advertised during a four-week period before, during and after next year’s Olympics.
The BOA has its own often competing commercial partners and uses that income to fund kit, travel, accommodation and vast logistical, medical and training support for all Team GB athletes during the Olympics.
New guidelines were published by the BOA last month which allowed athletes to post one individual message of “thank you” to each sponsor across social media platforms. This still stipulates that the message should not contain any Olympic branding such as a medal or team kit.
In a letter to the BOA from the law firm Brandsmiths, this “relaxation” of the guidelines is described as “window dressing” which does not add “to the rights of the athletes in any meaningful way”.
The letter also asserts that the rules are unlawful and accuses the BOA of “general anti-competitive behaviour”.
Rule 40 was initially introduced by the International Olympic Committee to protect its official commercial partners, but has become increasingly unpopular among athletes and sponsors who could not benefit commercially during their moment of greatest potential visibility. Individual nations can now decide how Rule 40 is interpreted for their athletes.
Gemili, who sits on the BOA’s athletes’ commission, pointed to other Olympic associations, notably those in Germany and the United States, which have granted their athletes more freedom to engage with their individual commercial partners.
“The BOA has the authority to grant us the same rights as our German Olympic counterparts but sadly they have chosen to ignore our requests, forcing us down this path,” said Gemili. “The BOA has continuously failed to respect our pleas for fairness and equality. We are not asking for any financial remuneration although, unlike most nations, we receive no money from the BOA for competing or winning medals at an Olympic Games. It is ridiculous, unjust and unfair.”
The BOA, in turn, has pointed to its particular funding model, which does not include any public funding, and relies solely on its commercial partners to send around 700 athletes to events including the Summer Olympics, Winter Olympics and Youth Olympics over a four-year cycle.
Today I put my name to a letter submitted to @TeamGB asking for fairer rights for athletes around the @Olympics. I urge all British Olympic athletes to go to this link and support our position https://t.co/FFvhqs0ikM#Rule40GB#OneTeamGBpic.twitter.com/2bNPvBkz1h
— Adam Gemili (@Adam_Gemili) November 15, 2019
That equates to more than £60 million and there is concern that this income, which is especially important for athletes in lower profile sports and without individual sponsors, would be threatened if Rule 40 were further relaxed.
“Rule 40 is an IOC rule which we apply in our territory and is the protection that allows us to fund such activities for all athletes, regardless of their sport, status or personal sponsors,” said a BOA spokesperson. “We acknowledge the statement made by a number of athletes today and will continue our ongoing dialogue with our athletes’ commission and the wider athlete community.”
The athletes who have signed the legal letter have asked for a series of changes which would give sponsors more freedom to market their athletes during the Olympics and remove the possibility of sporting sanctions following a dispute. Gemili says that they have the support of athletes across a range of sports.