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July 29, 2014

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Snowboarders and skiers fly in the face of logo rules

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James Hill / The New York Times

Liu Jiayu goes airborne, revealing a snowboarding brand’s logo, while competing for China in the women’s halfpipe at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Rosa Khutor, Russia, on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014.

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The Olympic Games work extremely hard to disguise their vast corporate ties. Fans at the venues and viewers at home will not see any business logos in the background, except the ubiquitous Olympic rings and Sochi 2014 emblem. Compared with NASCAR cars, international soccer uniforms or outfield fences, the illusion of the Olympics is one of noncommercial purity.

The only interruptions come from the athletes, their clothes and their equipment. The International Olympic Committee, leery of spoiling the canvas, has a 33-page book filled with detailed restrictions on logos. It dictates the size and placement of them on everything from team uniforms at the opening ceremony to the emblems on a skier’s gloves and the stickers on a bobsledder’s helmet. Observers might go the entire Olympics and not notice them.

At least until the snowboarders and skiers go airborne.

The bottom of them may be the most prominent billboards at the Winter Games, a bit of a twist of guerrilla marketing. When someone such as snowboarder Shaun White flies through the air, cameras often catch the underside of his board, on which Burton, the name of its manufacturer, is spread in large, bold letters. Those images flash across television screens and are published around the world.

Eight of the 12 finalists in the men’s halfpipe competition rode Burton boards. All of them went upside down.

“It’s great for awareness,” said Jake Burton, the company’s founder.

The same can be said for companies supplying skis, although the advertising space is slimmer. Two days later, at the men’s slopestyle competition in freestyle skiing, athletes performed a series of high-flying, corkscrewing tricks.

When the event ended, three Americans had earned medals, each of them holding their skis close for everyone to see - and photograph. Glad to accept the free advertising were Fischer (gold medalist Joss Christensen), Atomic (Gus Kenworthy, silver) and Volkl (Nick Goepper, bronze).

Of course, there have been snowboarders and skiers, especially, showing the world the undercarriages of their equipment for years. Ski jumpers, for one, have been an Olympics fixture since 1924.

But since 1992, the Winter Olympics have grown steadily skyward, adding freestyle skiing and snowboarding events. Most feature airborne, rotating athletes. And what makes their equipment different from that of, say, ski jumpers, who have specialized skis designed specifically for use on ski jumps, is that it is marketed heavily to the masses. White’s Burton board is not unlike the ones that countless snowboarders buy and ride.

The aerial bombardment of brands seems to fly in the face of the International Olympic Committee, which goes to great lengths to squelch promotional interference from companies without sponsorship ties to the games. The IOC’s Rule 40 even restricts athletes from publicly mentioning their sponsors by name, even on social media, during the Olympics. That led to a protest from athletes at the 2012 Summer Games in London.

Restrictions carry to the competitions, where even the logos of major sponsors - McDonald’s, Visa and Panasonic among them - are nowhere to be seen.

Logos on uniforms cannot be larger than 20 square centimeters, for example. No “item” - piece of clothing or equipment - “may be used for advertising purposes,” the guidelines read. “An item is in particular considered to be used for advertising purposes when the identification on such item is not in relation to sport or is only featured or used for the purpose of conspicuous exposure during the Olympic Games.”

That eliminates stickers that snowboarders spread across their boards and on helmets. But it does not eliminate brand names on the equipment.

“The identification of the manufacturer may be carried as generally used on products sold through the retail trade during the period of 12 months prior to the Games,” the rules read.

That is a vital loophole for snowboard and ski companies. They slip through it without intending to, at least not specifically at the Winter Games. For decades, they have used the top and the bottom of their equipment as space for logos. Not long after Burton’s founding in 1977, decades before snowboarding joined the Olympics, the company began putting its name on the bottom of snowboards, usually in big, bold script. It often uses the bottom of the board as a canvas for company artists.

“The coolest thing in my life before snowboarding was album art,” Burton said.

At the Olympics, Burton-sponsored riders filled five of 12 slots in the women’s halfpipe final, three in the men’s slopestyle final and one in the women’s slopestyle final. But not all their Burton boards were obviously by Burton. The men’s halfpipe silver medalist Ayumu Hirano’s board read “custom” in capital letters - Burton’s most popular model.

“It has always said custom instead of Burton,” Burton said.

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