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British athletes have threatened legal action against the British Olympic Association

Some of Team GB athletes have challenged the BOA over sponsorship rights regarding what they have deemed to be “unjust and unfair” marketing rules.

The British Olympic Association (“BOA”) who are the National Olympic Committee for Great Britain and Northern Ireland have been threatened with legal action by some of Team GB athletes. Part of BOA’s role is to select Team GB and also to promote and protect the Olympic Movement within the UK, in accordance with Olympic values and the Olympic Charter.

What is the reason for the dispute?

Some of Team GB athletes including Adam Gemili, Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Sir Mo Farah have challenged the BOA over sponsorship rights regarding what they have deemed to be “unjust and unfair” marketing rules which restrict the athlete from publicly acknowledging their sponsors during the Olympic games. This centres around BOA’s “Rule 40” of the Olympic Charter. This rule governs the way in which athletes can use their image, name or performance during the Olympic games. And with Tokyo 2020 around the corner - which could be viewed as the most significant moment of an athlete’s career, British athletes will face a restriction on their ability to economically benefit from the publicity.

The challenge follows the International Olympic Committee’s (“IOC”) announcement that they were relaxing the rules on sponsorship restrictions enabling countries to be more flexible with their interpretation of Rule 40. This landmark announcement in Germany significantly softened the power of the regulation. Following the announcement, British athletes have been left frustrated because BOA have only slightly relaxed their position stating, that athletes can issue one generic thank you message during the “Games period”. This is a forward step as previously Team GB were completely banned from posting thank you messages. However other countries, such as Germany and the USA, have been offered a less restrictive approach.

How have BOA responded?

A formal letter was sent to the BOA, fronted by Adam Gemili, who have now responded fully to the challenge. They have explained that the reason behind the rule is to try to strike a balance between athletes being free to maximise their personal sponsorship with the need to preserve the system from selling rights collectively. Rule 40 is designed to protect the exclusivity of its major partners which will in turn restrict an athlete’s ability to promote personal sponsorship. BOA have also emphasised that they receive no public or government funds which means that it is necessary to have restrictive rules relating to the commercial freedoms of British athletes. However, this explanation has received criticism as many other Olympic Committees, such as the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, receive funding only from sponsorship and they have less restrictive provisions.

How will this affect the rights of British athletes?

BOA state that they do not think a long drawn out legal dispute before Tokyo 2020 is in the interests of either party and are hoping to reach a positive solution through continued constructive dialogue. There has been little movement on the rights afforded to athletes for Team GB in comparison to the rights afforded to athletes in other countries, such as the USA and Germany. The potential impact of this being that British athletes will be unable to engage with advertising during the peak of their careers, leaving them far behind other athletes who have been permitted to engage with advertising opportunities.

Have any other restrictions been imposed which will impact British athletes?

The IOC have also announced that all athletes are to be banned from making political statements during the Tokyo 2020 games. This decision is based upon Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, with the IOC stating that they will not tolerate any political propaganda. This further announcement will limit a UK athlete’s ability to utilise the platform they have been given and will place an even further restriction on the British athlete.

If you would like to discuss any of the issues within this article, then please contact Nicola Gonnella Partner, 0141 375 0865 or Rebecca Ellis, Trainee Solicitor, 0141 404 9312. Nicola is a partner within our corporate-commercial team and has widespread experience representing major brands, high value companies, partnerships, public authorities and sporting bodies with commercial contract and sponsorship experience within the UK and globally. Nicola is part of the Sports Group and has a sound background of working in highly regulated sectors and managing risks across a broad range of legal issues.

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