Olympics-U.S. Twitter rebels want to help struggling athletes

LONDON, July 29 Mon Jul 30, 2012 10:56am EDT

LONDON, July 29 (Reuters) - The Olympic Twitter protest by American athletes over restrictions on the promotion of sponsors is aimed at helping peers who struggle financially to stay in the sport, world champion runner Sanya Richards-Ross said on Monday.

A string of American track and field athletes launched the campaign on the social networking site in the early hours of the third day of competition at the London Games.

The tweets targeted rule 40 of the Olympic Charter, which forbids athletes from taking part in advertising for anyone except official sponsors during the Games.

"People see the Olympic Games, when athletes are at their best but they don't see the three or four years before when many of my peers are struggling to stay in the sport," Richards-Ross, twice Olympic 4x400 metres relay champion, told reporters.

"The majority of track and field athletes don't have sponsors. In the sport, a lot of my peers have second and third jobs to be able to do this. We understand that the IOC is protecting its sponsors but we want to have a voice as well."

Rule 40 protects the 11 international companies, including Visa, McDonald's and Coca-Cola, which help to bankroll the Olympic movement, paying around $100 million each for four years of global rights to sponsor a Winter and Summer Games.

Those companies and sponsors of National Olympic Committees, including the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), are exempt from rules designed to prevent "ambush marketing" or non-sponsors getting free publicity on the back of the Games.

"Only two percent of U.S. athletes are able to tweet about their sponsors because only two percent of athletes have USOC or IOC sponsors," said Richards-Ross.

FINANCIAL HELP

International Olympic Committee (IOC) spokesman Mark Adams said the ban was only for one month every four years, arguing Rule 40 was "entirely the right thing to do" as it supported less privileged athletes who depended on the IOC for cash.

The IOC pumps back 92 percent of its revenues to its stakeholders which include Games organisers, international federations and National Olympic Committees.

Dozens of athletes at these Games have received help from the IOC for their preparations, including in countries such as crisis-hit Greece, where funding for sport has been slashed.

"A huge number of athletes would understand why we are doing this and not endorse products that do not give money to the Olympic movement," Adams said.

There is no doubt that sport-related income for U.S. track and field athletes has declined over the last two decades.

Ed Moses, Olympic hurdles champion in 1976 and 1984, said on Sunday his earning power had been much higher in his heyday than any American track and field athlete was earning today.

"Track and field has fallen behind a lot of the professional sports," he said. "In 1983, I was making more than professional NFL quarterbacks in the United States, being an amateur athlete.

"There is nobody in track and field who can even get close to those guys now, not even one person."

Emmanuel Seuge, global head of sports and entertainment marketing at Coca-Cola, said he had not heard about the protest but was "not necessarily" surprised: "We are a valued partner of the IOC and we obviously value the way they help respect the rights that we have acquired."

Richards-Ross said the last thing the protesters, such as 100m hurdles Olympic champion Dawn Harper and high jump world champion Jesse Williams, wanted was to distract their team.

"We don't want to start a war because we want to come out here and run well," she said.

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