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British Athletes take legal action against BOA over sponsorship restrictions

(Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

The British Olympic Association (BOA) is facing legal action from some of its top athletes over the restrictions it imposes on personal sponsorships at the Olympic Games.

Led by sprinter Adam Gemili, 26 athletes have launched their case, citing the current regulations as unfairly reducing the earning potential of athletes and blocking them from experiencing the financial benefits of the highest profile event of their career.

The restrictions originate in the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Rule 40. This is the clause in the Olympic Charter aimed at protecting the exclusivity of the IOC’s 12 major partners.

In February, Germany’s competition regulator ruled that these laws were overly strict and “too far reaching”. This prompted the IOC to relax its regulations and allow National Olympic Committees to apply these as they see fit.

Following this, the German, US and Australian Olympic governing associations all softened their stances on Rule 40 and granted athletes greater freedom in personal sponsorship activity at the Olympics.

In October 2019, the BOA also revised its guidelines, diluting some of the restrictions. However, Gemili and his fellow athletes argue this doesn’t match those made by other nations. They argue that the main change of allowing a generic ‘thank you’ message to personal sponsors during the Games period adds zero value to potential deals.

In a letter to the BOA the claimant athletes stated that the changes amounted to “no more than window dressing” and “do not add to the rights of athletes in any meaningful way”.

The timescale under which athletes have to apply for consent for marketing activities is also a major point of contention. Applications are required three months before the Olympic Games, yet most athletes won’t know they have been selected for the 2020 event until later.

The letter submitted to the BOA explains the commercial constraints this places on athletes. It stated: “Some individual sponsors, especially small and medium-sized companies or brands that do not have a sophisticated marketing department, will not be willing to plan advertising and social media activities with the Athletes by 14 May 2020, which means that in some cases it will not be possible for the athletes to receive sponsorship from or provide marketing activities to such companies and comply with the BOA Rule 40 Guidelines.”

The BOA position on the matter centres on the idea that the Rule 40 protection allows it to fund athletes to participate in events such as the Olympics.

Callum Skinner, the Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist and lead athlete with the Global Athlete movement, told SportBusiness this morning he supported the athletes’ ‘right’ to bring action against the BOA.

“I take a similar stance to the Jess Varnish employment case, the claimants are stating the current rules are unlawful and it’s the defendants job to argue that they are.”

Skinner continues: “It goes both ways, I have benefited from BOA partners, in an obvious sense in terms of attending the Games and the support they provide. I have also done additional paid appearances for BOA partners.

“It’s hard to quantify to what extent I have been negatively affected. I could have benefited from a personal sponsorship perspective if I had had rights to my image and the freedom to promote sponsors during the games.

“I presume that if I had those rights I personally would have been able to capitalise on Rio 2016 to a greater extent. It varies from sport to sport but as an athlete I found the British Cycling contract more restrictive as they have a series of large commercial partners where they offer exclusivity.

“In other national federations it’s a different story. The distribution of funds across UK Sport, National Federations and the BOA needs to be looked at. At British Cycling, some management members can be paid 10 times or more than Paralympic champions on the team.”

Skinner also understands there is commercial pressure on the BOA since they are one of two National Olympic Committees which are solely-privately funded. “Adam Gemili and the other athletes pushing the legal action have rightly asked a few questions as to how that revenue is spent. [However], a true resolution will come from all funding parties, UK Sport, National Federations and the BOA, I strongly believe it’s time to enhance athlete protections and earnings.”

In a social media post, Gemili summarised that: “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.”

He is joined by the likes of Katarina Johnson-Thompson, Mo Farah and Laura Muir as being listed as claimants in the case.