Not just a sporting event, the Olympics present a fashion dilemma. That Pepsi T-shirt and Nike sneakers may seem perfect for a trip to Olympic Park -- but will they fall foul of the brand police?
Olympic organizers scrambled Friday to clarify their restrictions on branding, after the head of the London games suggested a shirt bearing the logo of Pepsi -- rival to Olympic sponsor Coca-Cola -- would probably be banned from Olympic venues.
“No, you probably wouldn’t be walking in with a Pepsi T-shirt because Coca-Cola are our sponsors and they have put millions of pounds (dollars) into this project but also millions of pounds (dollars) into grass roots sport,” games chief Sebastian Coe told BBC radio. “It is important to protect those sponsors.”
Rubbish, says the London organizing committee -- the very body that Coe heads.
“Any individual coming into our venues can wear any item of clothing, branded or otherwise,” the committee said in a “mythbuster” fact sheet.
But, it added, there could be a problem “if large groups come in together wearing clearly visible branding/marketing.” That could be classed as “ambush marketing” by non-sponsors, a definite no-no.
Organizers want to head off stunts like the one at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when the Bavaria brewing company outfitted some 30 Dutch women in mini-dresses in its trademark orange for the Netherlands' opening game against Denmark.
Adidas is another big sponsor, but Coe told the BBC that visitors wearing Nike sneakers would “probably” be allowed in.
The organizing committee insists Nike shoes are definitely OK for spectators -- but not necessarily for games staff or participants. Guidelines sent to children who will be forming a guard of honor for the athletes' parade on July 27 have been advised to wear “unbranded or Adidas shoes.”
The confusion follows a swirl of rumors about the event’s complex commercial rules, including reports of visitors to Olympic Park being forced to carry their potato chips in a clear plastic bag because the brand was not an Olympic sponsor.
LOCOG insists that’s another Olympic myth.
Games organizers are vigilant about protecting the rights of sponsors like McDonald’s, Adidas and Cadbury, which pay as much as $100 million each to be official sponsors during each Olympic cycle. The logos of competitors are banned from games venues, and under a special Olympic law passed by the British Parliament, businesses can be barred from using words and phrases -- including “London 2012” or even gold, silver and bronze -- that suggest an Olympic association.
Advertising is banned in “event zones” around the Olympic venues, and hundreds of uniformed officers are being dispatched during the July 27-Aug. 12 games to look for infractions. Violators can be fined up to 20,000 pounds ($31,000).
The Olympic Delivery Authority insists it is not trying to be a killjoy. It says the point is to stop ambush marketing, halt illegal trading and “ensure a welcoming environment for spectators.”
But Peter Vlachos, a marketing expert at the University of Greenwich, said the restrictions were ironic in Britain, a country that prides itself on having “one of the freest economies in the world.”
“To engage in this kind of monopolization seems almost kind of counterintuitive,” he said.
“This is almost becoming a question of consumer sovereignty,” he added. “The Olympics are denying us choice in the market. We don’t even have Burger King. It’s just McDonald’s.”
The welter of overlapping rules, and officials’ occasional zealousness at enforcing them, has already sparked outrage and ridicule.
Pity the poor butcher in the south coast town of Weymouth, home to the Olympic sailing competition, forced to remove a sign depicting sausages shaped into the Olympic rings -- five years before the games even started. Olympic restrictions were passed by Parliament in 2006, the year after London was awarded the games.
“People have said, ‘You were the first antagonizer,’” said butcher Dennis Spurr, still shaking his head over the 2007 incident. “I was a bit miffed by it all, I thought, blimey, I’m only trying to celebrate this thing. I’m not trying to make any money by it.”
With the games approaching, Spurr has replaced the sign on his shop wall with an arrangement of five frying pans. He says any resemblance to the Olympic rings is purely coincidental.
And despite his experience, Spurr remains enthusiastic about the games - and understands the need to protect the sponsors’ rights.
“I think it’s brilliant,” he said. “Everyone’s whining about it but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.
“It’s the biggest show on Earth, (and) without these sponsors they wouldn't be putting on these big events.”