Selling the Olympic Spirit to the Highest Bidder

Selling the Olympic Spirit to the Highest Bidder

Following late nights out this past August, I could count on getting home, turning on the TV, and catching an Olympic event as it occurred live. My favourite was women’s gymnastics. What I failed to realize at the time, however, was just how meticulously orchestrated the 2008 Beijing Olympic games actually were- and by this I am not alluding to the sporting events.

As the Games become bigger and better, and each host country strives to outdo the last, there must inevitably be someone footing the bill. The operating costs of the Vancouver 2010 Games are estimated at $1.63 billion, the bulk of which is generated through enormous sponsorship agreements and the auctioning off of the Olympic brand by way of merchandizing and broadcasting deals[i]. Those who are not official sponsors, yet still make use of a protected mark or engage in ambush marketing tactics, face the wrath of the IOC (International Olympics Committee) and its Canadian crony, VANOC (Vancouver Organizing Committee). Several small businesses operating under a name that includes a protected Olympic mark have already been targeted by VANOC, which has attempted to force them to change their names or else face legal sanctions. It does not stop there, however. Non-official sponsors whose brands make it into Olympic venues are also subject to censorship. In Beijing, the IOC’s ‘duct tape patrol’ inspected the venues with a fine tooth comb, swiftly removing or covering up any offending brands with duct tape[ii].

As if existing Canadian intellectual property legislation was not enough, the Olympic and Paralympic Marks Act[iii] was enacted to afford greater protection of the Olympic brand. More recently, VANOC has even managed to successfully trademark certain lyrics from “O Canada” to serve as Vancouver 2010 mottoes.  “With glowing hearts” and the French “des plus brillants exploits” are just the latest items that have been appropriated by VANOC. Other items that comprise the Olympic brand include “2010”, “winter games”, “Canada 2010”, and the list goes on[iv]. But don’t worry- you won’t have to look over your shoulder when singing the national anthem. VANOC makes it clear that it will only challenge those who use the mottoes for commercial gain. Still, there is just something disconcerting about the commercialization of parts of the national anthem that leaves a bad taste in many people’s mouths.

While it is understandable that hosting the Olympics is expensive, the actions of the IOC and VANOC tread the fine line between justified protection of the exclusivity of the Olympic mark and creating a stifling environment for those who are not official corporate sponsors. The overzealous protective measures dampen the Olympic spirit by shifting the focus away from the actual sporting events and creating a climate of uncertainty and fear of infringement. The IOC and VANOC are sending a clear message through their actions: if you want a piece of the Olympic pie, you’d better have deep pockets.

[i] “Protecting the Brand” available at <>

[ii] Rod Mickleburgh “Sticking to Official Olympic Brands-With Duct Tape” Globe and Mail, August 15, 2008.

[iii] S.C. 2007, c.25.

[iv] Supra note 1.