Sponsors rethink links to Oscar Pistorius

February 14, 2013

The sponsors that helped make Oscar Pistorius the highest-profile and highest-paid Paralympic athlete in the world are having to rethink their commitment to the sportsman after he was charged with murder Thursday.

The disabled athlete, whose performances at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games made a national hero in South Africa, had links with Nike, sunglass manufacturer Oakley, perfume maker Thierry Mugler and running blade manufacturer Ossur. In total, his sponsorship deals were estimated to be worth about $4.7 million.

Already, the South African satellite TV channel M-Net has pulled its campaign promoting the forthcoming Oscar awards season. “Out of respect and sympathy to the bereaved, M-Net will be pulling its entire Oscar campaign featuring Oscar Pistorius with immediate effect,” the channel said.

A Nike spokesperson said: “Nike extends its deepest sympathy and condolences to all families concerned following this tragic incident. As it is a police matter, Nike will not comment further at this time.”

British Telecom, another sponsor of Pistorius, said it was “shocked by this terrible, tragic news.” On Thursday, BT was also shortlisted for an industry award for its sponsorship of Pistorius. No one at Oakley was available for comment.

The accusations against Pistorius follow other sporting scandals. Cyclist Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles for doping and ultimately lost his Nike sponsorship deal. Similarly, Gatorade ended its deal with Tiger Woods after it emerged that he cheated on his wife with prostitutes. In both cases, companies were slow to decide about the future of the sponsorship deals.

The nature of the allegations faced by Pistorius mean that “it’s a bit of a new territory,” said Nigel Currie, of the sports marketing consulting firm Brand Rapport.

“With all the others, there was always the chance [the sports figure] could come back in some other guise or reinvent himself or do something,” Currie said. This time, “if [Pistorius] is responsible, it is life and death as opposed to a personal scandal or a cheating drugs scandal.”

He compared the case to the frenzy surrounding football player O.J. Simpson’s murder trial in 1994. He added, though, that Thursday’s accusation comes when the South African athlete is still “at the peak of his powers.”

The 26-year-old face of the Paralympic movement called London 2012 a “dream come true.” Last summer, he became the first double leg amputee to compete at the Olympic Games, running in the 400-meter sprint, but his sporting glory was cemented at the Paralympics, two weeks later, where he won two gold medals and a silver medal.

— Financial Times

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