Disempowering the Powerful: Gender, Popularity and Profit

With arms slicing through water like hot blades through soft butter, Michael Phelps won the 100 m Butterfly on Day 7 of the Olympics. The swim earned him a 17th gold medal and 21 Olympic medals. This expanded the record he set a day prior when he became the first man to win the same individual medley (200 m) at three consecutive Olympics. He did it all wearing a Speedo.

The company may profit from Phelp’s gold—surely more than he will. Because of Rule 40, Speedo’s visibility is limited and Phelps, a world-record breaker, cannot capitalize on his achievement by endorsing products right away.

US Olympian Dawn Harper protesting restrictions against sponsorship at the Olympics. (Self-posted on Twitter)

During week one of the Games, several American athletes used social media to call attention to the rule. Tweeting with #WeDemandChange, athletes, including Sanya Richards-Ross and Dawn Harper, protested the unfairness of Rule 40. Some dramatized the protest by taking stark photos of themselves with mouths covered with duct tape on which they wrote “Rule 40.″

The photographs, implying as they do, that these athletes are hostages performing at the world’s most prestigious sporting event are unsettling. Women and African-Americans comprise a core of the most outspoken protesters. Why? The rule affects them disproportionately.

What’s the fuss about Rule 40? Established many years ago to prevent ambush marketing—any unofficial promotion—Rule 40 is an IOC by-law forbidding athletes from promoting personal sponsors 10 days before, during, and 3 days after the Olympics, unless those sponsors are official Olympic partners. http://www.london2012.com/mm/Document/Publications/General/01/25/29/32/rule-40-guidelines_Neutral.pdf
Official partners and supporters hold the potential to profit substantially thus sponsorship rights are extremely valuable. But athletes don’t reap the benefits generated by these partnerships—profits pay for the cost related to the Games themselves. Still, athletes are forbidden from endorsing the sponsors who support them during the Games.

In essence, during the Olympics, athletes are paid not in currency but in honor. That might not seem unfair, at first glance, but the training these athletes undertake for years before qualifying for the Olympics can be unfathomably expensive. Until they attract attention of a sponsor, they (and often their families and communities), foot the bills themselves. Rule 40 lacks uniformity; it affects athletes of smaller, less-revenue-generating sports—especially women’s sports and sports like swimming—far more than sports like basketball or baseball.

When interviewed, Peter Carlisle, who represents Michael Phelps, compared Rule 40 to bullying. Other agents have pointed out that, prior to the Olympics, swimwear manufacturers were required to significantly reduce their logos on swimsuit and caps—greatly reducing brand visibility and prompting them to question the return on their investment. In other more lucrative sports brand logos are more visible.
If sponsors for Phelps, a record-setting gold medal earner and media magnet, worry about the return on their investment, what hope do athletes in smaller sports have that draw less revenue? What impact does this have on women athletes?

Commercialization of sports is a key factor in the marginalization of women’s sports and the reason why some, like women’s beach volleyball, have relied on accentuating sex appeal to attract spectators.

After perusing Getty photos—a primary photo source for images of athletes, Nate Jones wrote the cheeky photo essay, “What if every Olympic sport was photographed like beach volleyball?”  The essay pokes fun at the unquestionably sexist professional sports photos of women’s beach volleyball players by following a selection of those photos with pictures male athletes cropped to mimic the photos of women volleyball players. The essay underscores the trivialization of women athletes’ bodies. Presented as faceless torsos wearing bikini bottoms—sometimes labeled  “unidentified athlete”—their bodies become eroticized objects for viewers to visually consume. http://www.metro.us/newyork/sports/article/1148979–what-if-every-olympic-sport-was-photographed-like-beach-volleyball

Wearing bikinis—which until this year were the sport’s mandatory uniform—downplays the athleticism of these women, presents them as objects for consumption and obscures the hard training they undertake. Yet, if athletes don’t concede to sponsors who seek to generate profit by presenting them as objects first, and athletes second, they risk losing financial backing.

Men in sports that generate less revenue face a similar issue. Before the 2008 Olympics, Speedo used Phelps to promote its swimsuit Fastskin Pro. Mimicking the quick pace and flashing lights of a dance club, the minimalist, artistic commercials presented brief flashes of Phelp’s body to the beat of dance music.

The provocative ad appealed to both men and women–judging from comments left on various sites–exactly what any brand would hope. On the one hand, the glimpses of Phelps are awe-inspiring, celebrating his impressive physical body. On the other hand, sexuality seeps through the commercial as quick flashes of Phelps’s streamlined body are timed perfectly with the lyrics, “Hold me back, ‘Cuz I’m about to blow.” The ad is incredibly effective, treading the line between showcasing the human body as a work of art and presenting it as a sexually-charged object.

Today, some athletes are affected by measures, like Rule 40, which are meant to protect against blatant commercialization but in effect actually disempower them to capitalize at their most profitable time. What choice do they have but to acquiesce to being treated like objects if that will generate revenue?