USOC upset by commercials suggesting ties to Winter Olympics

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010

Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps swims right through the wall of an indoor pool in a recent Subway commercial, plowing out of the building, ripping up concrete as he strokes across a street, past a Subway restaurant where, the ad indicates: "Phelps fuels up . . . so he can get to where the action is this winter." Then a map flashes, charting Phelps's route to what appears to be Vancouver, the site of the February Winter Games.

In another ad, this one for Verizon Wireless, a voice asks, as two speedskaters race on an icy oval, "What does it take to . . . succeed in a place with the highest level of intense competition?"

Neither company, however, is an official Olympic sponsor. Commercials such as these getting prime-time exposure have infuriated officials from the U.S. Olympic Committee and International Olympic Committee, who issued a scathing release Wednesday accusing a number of unspecified companies with using "ambush marketing practices" to profit from association with the Winter Olympics and Olympic athletes without paying for it.

Lisa Baird, the U.S. Olympic Committee's chief marketing officer, said the USOC had relayed its concerns to Subway, Verizon Wireless and other companies, but declined to elaborate on the communication or comment on whether legal proceedings were planned or underway.

"The fundamental issue is, we want to protect our sponsors' rights, because it's only through the financial generosity of our sponsors and donors that our athletes can compete," Baird said in a phone interview from Colorado Springs.

Subway is a sponsor of Phelps, a 14-time Olympic gold medal winner in swimming. Tony Pace, chief marketing officer of the Subway Franchisee Advertising Trust, disputed the USOC's interpretation of the Phelps ad in a statement released two days later.

"Subway has a successful history of partnering with elite athletes," Pace said. "Regarding our latest commercial featuring Michael Phelps, Subway does not share the USOC's perspective and the conclusions being drawn from it. Michael Phelps has been an integral part of several Subway marketing campaigns since late 2008. We are proud of our work with Michael and we look forward to working with him and other elite athletes throughout 2010 and beyond."

Through the 1978 Amateur Sports Act, the USOC received the exclusive rights to market the Olympic rings, Olympic Games and U.S. Olympic team. Because the organization receives no government funding, it relies entirely on private and corporate support to aid U.S. Olympic athletes.

AT&T, a rival of Verizon Wireless, is an official sponsor of the U.S. Olympic team, and McDonald's, which competes with Subway, is one of the IOC's top sponsors. The USOC and IOC are particularly sensitive about alleged sponsorship infringement, as both organizations struggle to keep and attract big-money sponsors during the current recession.

Verizon Wireless is a sponsor of U.S. Speedskating, and it mentions that association in the speedskating commercial. Sponsorships of national sport governing bodies, however, do not extend to the Olympic Games, USOC officials say.

Brenda Raney, a spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless, said she was not aware of any communication from the USOC, but stood by the company's commercials, saying its "advertisements are going to be reflective of" its sponsorship of U.S. Speedskating and the U.S. Luge Association, which it also sponsors.

"As a major corporation, we take pride in working ethically with all of our sponsorships," Raney said.

The IOC has signed just nine top-tier sponsors through the London Summer Games, two short of the number it had in the four years leading up to the 2008 Games in Beijing. The USOC's sponsorships have historically varied, but it lost Home Depot, Bank of America and General Motors after Beijing.

"Ultimately, companies which try to create the false impression that they are an official partner of the Olympic Games, or create a false association with the Olympic Games, are cheating Olympic athletes," said Gerhard Heiberg, an IOC member from Norway and the chairman of the IOC Marketing Commission in a statement. "It is important that the public is made aware of these organizations and how they are depriving the Olympic Games and sport development around the world of essential support."

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