Nike has still had more athletes on the podium than any other company, it hasn’t been total domination. (Photo: Paul Merca for TrackTown USA)

The Trials Is the Biggest Moment for Running Brands

With Rule 40 restrictions looming, this is the time for athletes to tout their sponsors


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It’s hard to think of a better example of how track and field can make for compelling entertainment than last Sunday’s final of the women’s 400 meters at the Olympic Trials. Allyson Felix, who with nine medals to her name is already the most decorated female American track and field star in Games history, made up several places in the final 100 meters to snag silver, running 50.02 and making her fifth Olympic team. Dipping at the line, Felix beat Wadeline Jonathas by 0.01 seconds and fourth-place finisher Kendall Ellis by 0.08 seconds. The race was so close that Felix didn’t know whether she’d made the team until she saw the results on the scoreboard. Afterwards, Felix and Quanera Hayes, who won the race, were joined on the track by their two-year-old children. As the cameras rolled and thousands of giddy Hayward spectators looked on, there was a brief embrace between the tiny offspring of the newly minted Olympians. Talk about good TV: Babies hugging. “Supermommies” cementing their postpartum comebacks by making the Olympic team. You could almost hear the NBC executives shrieking with delight.

The reaction among some of the higher-ups at Nike might have been more subdued. Two years ago, Felix signed a sponsorship deal with the women’s apparel company Athleta. She had been a Nike runner for almost a decade, but when she became pregnant, the company was apparently unwilling to include performance-related maternity protections in her contract, as Felix alleged in a 2019 New York Times op-ed. Since then, Nike has updated its pregnancy policy for sponsored athletes, launched a maternity line, and has generally tried to position itself as a progressive force in women’s sports. In failing to retain Felix, however, the brand missed out on a chance to champion a new mother-cum-Olympian, who also happens to be the most recognizable face in U.S. track and field. Cue the Nike-hater schadenfreude.

Maybe it’s because I subconsciously expected an event staged in a new super-stadium bankrolled by Phil Knight to be a relentless Nike glorification show, but what’s struck me so far at the Trials is the extent to which other brands have managed to share in the glory. To be sure, the Swoosh has still had more athletes on the podium than any other company, but it hasn’t been total domination. There was New Balance’s audacious podium sweep in the women’s 1,500 meters behind a roaring wire-to-wire victory from Elle Purrier St. Pierre. What’s more, the Boston-based company can now also boast having 100-meter champ Trayvon Bromell on its roster. Although Noah Lyles came up short in the 100, his sponsor, Adidas, already has a sprint title, thanks to Kendra Harrison’s dominant performance in the women’s 100-meter hurdles. And then there’s Puma, having recently reinvested in pro track and field, seeing its man Will Claye take gold in the triple jump.

It wasn’t only established, legacy companies making their presence felt in Eugene either; top performers were repping brands that either didn’t exist a decade ago, or were still in their infancy. On the same day that Felix made her fifth Olympic team wearing an all black Athleta kit (and spikes from her new shoe company, Saysh), Rudy Winkler set a national record in the hammer throw in Tracksmith. (The New England–based apparel makers also featured prominently during NBC’s commercial breaks, thanks to a new spot where speedy amateurs rip a quarter-mile repeat as we hear voice-over narration from noted Transcendentalist poet Malcolm Gladwell.) In the men’s 10,000 meters on Friday night, Joe Klecker finished third, giving his sponsor, On Running, another Olympian to add to its roster, while Rachel Schneider did the same for Hoka by hanging on for bronze in the women’s 5,000.

Of course, when these athletes compete in Tokyo, they will all be wearing Nike’s Team USA kit. Moreover, they will have limited opportunities to rep their sponsor during their period of peak visibility, thanks to restrictions imposed by the International Olympic Committee’s infamous Rule 40. A long-standing bugbear for athletes, the regulation is designed to protect the exclusivity rights of those brands (e.g., Coca-Cola and Visa) who have spent an ocean of money to be official sponsors of the Games. In the past, competitors have been prohibited from promoting their sponsors in any way during the Olympics, with the threat of disqualification hanging over their heads should they fail to do so. But things are different this time, at least nominally. Following an amendment to Rule 40 in late 2019, U.S. Olympians will, for the first time, be allowed to directly thank their sponsors while competing in Tokyo. And these companies can likewise recognize their athletes during the Games.

While this represents a significant loosening of the IOC’s marketing policy, strict regulations remain. For instance, athletes can post a maximum of seven thank-you messages to their sponsor between July 13 and August 10, the period in which Rule 40 is in effect, while sponsors can congratulate athletes only once during that time. (Reposting of athlete messages is allowed, provided no additional text is included.) If you think that sounds restrictive, here’s the official wording on how athletes are allowed to acknowledge sponsors during the Rule 40 window:

In line with existing rules, athlete “thank you” advertising may not mention or promote the personal sponsor’s products or services, and may not use Olympic or Paralympic IP, including but not limited to the Olympic or Paralympic symbol, the Games emblems, the Games wordmarks (e.g., “Tokyo 2020”), official Games/Team apparel and medals, any still or moving images from inside a Games venue, reposts of Team USA, USOPC, IOC, IPC, Games or other Olympic or Paralympic movements social media content, or imply a relationship between a personal sponsor and Team USA, the USOPC, the Olympic or Paralympic movements, an NGB or the Games.

In other words, athletes can only thank their sponsors without mentioning any of said sponsors’ products and can only tout their status as an Olympian without using any Olympics-related imagery or language. (The fact that “Tokyo 2020” is a no-go gives you a pretty good sense of how protective the IOC is of its trademarks.) At the very least, this should make for some creative Instagram posts come mid-July.

No such social media limitations exist at the Trials, however, so we can expect a flood of hashtag-heavy declarations of gratitude as the action continues into the weekend. The quadrennial spectacle of the Olympic Trials has long had the reputation as the most exciting domestic track meet, one where the stakes for athletes looking to make their first Olympic team are even higher that at the Games themselves. Track and field careers are short, and athletes only have so many chances to earn a title they can claim for the rest of their lives. For athletes and sponsors alike, now is the time to seize the moment.

Lead Photo: Paul Merca for TrackTown USA