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What to wear all a matter of money at Olympics

By Eddie Pells

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, July 21 2012 5:20 a.m. MDT

The Aug. 16, 2012 file photo shows United States' Michael Phelps reacting after winning the gold medal in the men's 100-meter butterfly final during the swimming competitions in the National Aquatics Center at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Mark J. Terrill, File, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Olympians should have figured out one thing by now: What they can or cannot wear at the London Games has very little to do with their fashion, marketing sense or patriotism, and a whole lot to do with rules, regulations and, of course, money.

The overseers of the Olympics are protective of their brand and rings — considered one of the most recognizable logos in sports — and what the athletes wear when they're competing has been tightly regulated, much to the chagrin of some of the games' stars.

Take Michael Phelps, for example. He recently tweeted his dismay at no longer being allowed to wear a swimming cap bearing miniature American flags on the front and back.

"Gotta love an organizing committee telling us we can't do that anymore," he said on Twitter.

But neither the International nor U.S. Olympic Committees are making any apologies. The IOC keeps a tight grip on when and where advertising and other markings can be worn at the games. After all, its coffers took in more than $2.4 billion (over the four-year period ending in 2008, for instance) in marketing rights from companies like McDonald's and Coca-Cola.

The USOC and the federations that run the individual sports follow suit, paying respect to domestic and international sponsors who more or less bankroll the entire endeavor, which, in turn, provides the funding for the athletes.

"Our objective," said USOC head Scott Blackmun, "is to be able to support as many athletes who have a chance to represent us at the Olympic Games."

Not satisfied with the support he receives, American runner Nick Symmonds resorted to selling body space earlier this year.

Symmonds, one of the most outspoken athletes on this issue, was paid $11,100 by a Wisconsin-based lifestyle marketing firm for wearing a tattoo of their logo on his shoulder. He'll need to cover it with tape at Olympics so he can conform to the IOC's detailed guidelines about logos, advertising and manufacturer identification.

"My No. 1 goal, aside from making the Olympic team and winning a medal, is to bring awareness to how many struggling athletes there are out there — and wouldn't it be nice if we could just lift these regulations and allow athletes to pursue individual sponsorships a little more freely," Symmonds said in an interview earlier this year.

Not surprisingly, Symmonds was one of the first athletes to chime in last week when U.S. politicians called out the USOC for outfitting its athletes with Chinese-made uniforms produced by American-based manufacturer Ralph Lauren.

"Our Ralph Lauren outfits for the Olympic opening ceremonies were made in China. So, um, thanks China," Symmonds said in a tweet.

It was an embarrassment for both the apparel maker — future uniforms will be USA-made — and the USOC, which was careful to say it appreciates all sponsors — even those who make clothes in China — because it is a nonprofit that receives no government funding.

"The most important thing to remember is that, unlike professional leagues in the U.S., where you're trying to decide how much goes to owners and how much goes to athletes, in our environment, all the money goes to athletes," Blackmun said. "There are no owners putting money in their pockets. It's a completely nonprofit environment. It's a different environment than the marketing environment you see in pro leagues."

The U.S. uniforms aren't the only ones causing a stir. The Spanish team's garish red and yellow outfits — designed by Russian firm Bosco — haven't gone over well in Spain. Some Spanish athletes have posted tweets making fun of the gear.

The bottom line, though, is that national Olympic committees take the best deals they can get with the manufacturers.

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