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Put down that Pimms! Games organizers defend sponsors' rights with Olympian muscle

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LONDON - Perhaps we should have seen this coming.

Back in 2007, a butcher at the Fantastic Sausage Factory in the quaint English county of Dorset was told to remove a window sign depicting sausage meat twisted into the shape of the the five Olympic rings.

And last year, competitors in a baking contest in bucolic Shropshire were warned by games organizers to drop plans to place Olympic-themed marzipan figurines atop their cakes.

But those were merely preliminary skirmishes in a multibillion-dollar sponsorship battle that has drawn charges that London organizers have been heavy-handed, and just plain stupid, in their zealous enforcement of branding restrictions.

"The rules where intended to stop the big brands from getting a free ride on the Olympic good will," said Michael Payne, a former IOC marketing director who now works as a consultant.

"They were never designed nor intended to suffocate the genuine local community spirit — the florist putting up a bouquet of flowers, or the butcher doing a sign with olympic rings."

He blamed London organizers for creating outrage that will only boomerang on the very sponsors they seek to protect.

"You want to be balanced and intelligent ... but the agenda got hjijacked by the lawyers who were painting everything as black and white, when it needed to be applied in shades of grey."

Private Eye, Britain's spoof political magazine, captured the organizers' somewhat maniacal focus on brand protection best with its cover this week, which depicted two machine-gun wielding policemen outside Olympic Stadium warning a fan to "put down the Pepsi can and no one will get hurt."

As you can probably guess, Coke is the official soft drink of the games.

Just a sampling of the more bizarre examples from Olympic venues this week:

Pimms, that quintessentially English liqueur, cannot be listed on any menus during the games, even at Wimbledon, where tennis is taking place and where Pimms is as traditional as strawberries and cream. The gin-based drink, which is not an Olympic sponsor, is instead being referred to as "No. 1 Cup."

And the Goodyear Blimp, ubiquitous at sporting events around the globe, has been stripped of any corporate reference, prompting more than a few double-takes from sky-gazing fans.

Some journalists have been surprised to see Olympic workers taping over the logos on their Dell and Apple computers, since neither company is bankrolling the games, and the U.S. women's soccer team has been told not to hand out its media guide because it has 12 small logos of its sponsors — which are not official Olympics 2012 backers.

Even brand names of non-sponsors at Olympic Park bathrooms have been covered, though after a few days of competition some fans answering nature's call have started taking a mischievous pleasure in peeling the toilet tape back.

Back in 2006, the British government passed a law that not only beefed up copyright protection for the word "Olympics" and related symbols and slogans, but also blocked non-sponsoring companies from suggesting any hint of connection to the games. Several big companies have come up with clever ways around the ban that put them right up against the edge of the law.

Nike, which is not an Olympic sponsor, has begun an ad campaign in which athletes compete in cities called London — only not ones that happen to be the British capital. Locations include London, Ohio, and Little London, Jamiaca, and the ads carry slogans that subtly allude to the Olympics without actually naming them. London organizers considered legal action before deciding against it, but the ad must rile Olympic sponsor Adidas.

And it's not just corporate giants pushing back.

Dozens of Olympians have taken to Twitter since the games began to urge an end to the International Olympic Committee's Rule 40, which gives Olympic organizers the right to punish and even disqualify competitors if they try to pitch their own sponsors, whether on the field of play — where all advertising is barred — or online.

U.S. sprinter Manteo Mitchell summed up the view of many Olympians when he tweeted: "I am PROUD to represent my country ... But at the end of the day ... THIS IS MY JOB!!!!"

The London organizing committee defended its policy in a statement to The Associated Press, saying it had to raise more than $1 billion from sponsors, many of whom demanded exclusivity. The committee denied having a hand in the warning to the Dorset butcher, which it said came from a local government official, and said it was not official policy to require brand names on journalists' computers to be hidden by tape.

The committee noted it had never taken anyone to court, preferring to explain the rules rather than litigate, and added that allowing local businesses to get away with copyright violations would create a precedent that bigger corporations could follow.

"There are times when actions we have taken don't look so good, but we have tried and for the most part succeeded in having a measured and pragmatic approach," the committee said.

IOC spokesman Mark Adams was blunt in countering the criticism from some of the athletes: "We're trying to protect the money that comes into the Olympics movement. ... That is why we are doing it."

Payne, the former IOC marketing director, said some brand protection is absolutely necessary, despite his criticism of the shortsighted way the rules are sometimes applied.

All told, sponsors have ponied up more than $4 billion toward the cost of organizing the games and the expenses of the 204 national teams, he said, and without exclusivity, many would walk away.

"It's not just a glib marketing statement to say no sponsors, no games," Payne said. "It's the fact."

___

Follow Paul Haven on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/paulhaven.

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