What’s in a Word: Olympic

Document Type


Publication Title

Law Now







First Page


Publication Date

January 2010


Marketing the Olympic brand has been controversial. Some say the Olympic Games are now like all other large over-commercialized sport events. Others say that local and national governments invest and risk much in competing for and hosting the Games. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) spurned corporate sponsorship until about 40 years ago. But the modern Olympics are expensive. The arrival of television and lucrative advertising markets opened the field to international sponsors seeking to associate themselves with the upbeat Olympic brand. The 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles generated a record surplus of U.S.$225 million by selling exclusive sponsorship rights. The IOC moved in to develop the Olympic brand and control these international sponsorships with The Olympic Program (TOP) in 1985. TOP sponsorship costs U.S.$50 million for four years. International and domestic tiers of Olympic sponsorship have developed. The IOC negotiates and manages broadcast rights and the TOP worldwide sponsorship program. It distributes most of this marketing revenue, up to a $1 billion per year, to national organizations in its network to support staging the Games and promoting sport generally. The IOC assigns to the various National (Canadian Olympic Association) and Local Organizing Committees (VANOC) rights to exploit the symbols, the "Olympic" name and overall brand in order to sell domestic sponsorship, partnership and licensing within the host country. The economic value of the effort depends on how strictly it is enforced so that the benefits of the Olympic sponsorship accrue only to those who pay for it. Sponsors get exclusive global rights to use Olympic symbols for their product category in their promotional material. Many entities would like to have their wares and services publicly associated with the popular Olympics. Since the brand comprises a revenue stream too important to slide into the public domain, the Olympic movement assiduously protects its symbols and usage of the word "Olympic." It has succeeded in changing names of a rock band (The Olympic Hopefuls), non-profit groups who used the term for their competitive games, and a theatre (Improv Olympic). The "Olympics of the Mind" was forced to change to "Odyssey of the Mind," and a card game "Legend of the Five Rings" was renamed. Olymel, a Quebec meat processing company, applied in 1991 to register the trademarks "Olymel" and "Olymel & Design" for the meats and other related industry services the company provided. COA opposed. The "imperfect recollection" test was applied. It asked "whether a person who, on a first impression, knowing one mark only and having an imperfect recollection of it, would likely be deceived or confused."