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Olympics 2024: what new social media guidelines mean for athletes and their sponsors

CELLPHONE cameras are ubiquitous at modern sporting events. Whether it’s a school swimming gala, the local rugby club squaring off against their bitter rivals or a national team fighting for tournament glory, every moment is a potential photograph.

The Olympic Games are no exception. More than 10,000 athletes from 200 countries or regions are set to compete in 32 sports in this year’s host city, Paris, giving fans ample opportunity to fill their camera rolls with images of their favourite sporting heroes.

And participants, too, will be able to memorialise their time in Paris – far more freely than ever before. This comes after the Games’ governing body, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), unveiled new social media guidelines in December 2023.

Most of the guidelines are aimed at athletes; some relate to “accredited individuals other than athletes” such as coaches, technical staff and countries’ Olympic committee representatives.

As a legal scholar specialising in sports law, with a focus on image rights, I’ve been closely following the IOC’s stance on athletes’ use of social media – especially photographs and videos. Image rights are a broad bundle which may include rights over the use of the individual’s still, moving and animated images, name, signature recorded voice, catchphrases, associated iconic acts, logos, trademarks and brands.

These rights can be worth a lot of money. For example, Indian cricketer Virat Kohli can earn anything between US$2 million and US$2.7 million per social media post.

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Overall, it appears that the IOC has tried to strike a balance between protecting the media rights holders while still recognising the value of a participant’s image rights. It allows them to show more content than before and, more importantly, to acknowledge their personal sponsors, who play an important role in commercialising their images and building their brands. Loyal fans will get a fuller picture of their favourite athletes’ Olympic journeys than they’ve been able to before.

Social media at the Olympics

Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympics have been described as “the first social media games”, marking the first time that the IOC created social media guidelines. These were refined for the London 2012 Summer Olympics.

At the last Summer Olympics, hosted by Tokyo in 2020, athletes were not allowed to:

  • share any content from accredited areas used for a sporting competition or ceremony
  • post about their personal sponsors.

These restrictions were designed, the IOC said at the time, to protect media rights-holders such as TV stations and other big media organisations.

What’s changed

Under the new guidelines accredited participants can share their experiences far more freely on social media platforms during what the IOC calls the “game period”, from 18 July to 13 August.

They may:

  • take photographs and record audio and video inside and outside the accredited areas
  • share photographs on their personal social media platforms up to one hour before the start of the competition they’re taking part in, and after they have left the doping control areas
  • share posts from the training and practice areas, the opening and closing ceremonies and the Champions Park, where athletes gather after their competitions to meet and interact with fans.
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Of course there are still some restrictions.

Videos may not be live streamed, may not be longer than 2 minutes and may not include actual competitions. So, coaches can’t film an athlete in action and then share the video or photos. Athletes also can’t record another athlete training, or post highlights from their personal competition on social media. They can only share such images or videos from official media rights-holders’ accounts.

A grinning man in athletic clothing poses with several people using their phones to take selfies
People take selfies with Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie (C), former renowned long-distance runner and Olympic gold medallist. Amanuel Sileshi/AFP

Perhaps most intriguingly, photographs and videos that use artificial intelligence may not be shared. It’s unclear how the IOC intends to police this rule.

Not for commercial purposes

Media rights-holders aren’t left completely unprotected by the new guidelines. Participants are not allowed to post for commercial purposes throughout the game period.

A post will be regarded as “for commercial purposes” if its purpose is to generate financial profit or promote any third party or products or services.

One of the main goals of the new social media guidelines is to balance the rights of media holders and those of the participants. This attempt at a balancing act can be seen in the new rules for non-Olympic partners – those who don’t sponsor or have official merchandise licensing contracts with the IOC.

Brands or companies in this category may run generic advertising during the game period as long as it hasn’t been specially designed for the Olympics and has already been in the public eye for at least 90 days before the tournament starts. Advertisements in this category can’t be run more frequently during the Games than they have been previously. The IOC will apply these rules flexibly to enable “business-as-usual” campaigns.

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Participants are allowed to provide one “thank you” message to each of their non-Olympic partners during the games period but it may not include a personal endorsement.

Layckan Van Gensen, Junior Lecturer in Mercantile Law, Stellenbosch University

By LAYCKAN VAN GENSEN

Junior Lecturer in Mercantile Law, Stellenbosch University

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