ASPEN — It's time for Sochi-bound athletes to hold the hashtags.
Here comes Rule 40. The Olympic Charter regulation nixing athlete and sponsor marketing efforts for 28 days surrounding the Games is descending upon a youthful new wave of Olympians versed in social media and eager to please sponsors who have supported their years of work.
It's a venerable rule designed to limit excessive commercialism to the big-name Olympic sponsors that back the Games, such as Coca-Cola, General Electric, Visa, McDonald's and Samsung. That means the companies that have supported new-school freeskiing and snowboarding athletes can't promote those athletes on Twitter or in special marketing campaigns during the Sochi Games. And those athletes, according to Rule 40, can't "allow his person, name, picture, or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games."
So, don't look for those prevalent Red Bull beanies, flat brims and hoodies. No tweets thanking sponsors after a big victory. No Target labels on gloves. No pointing to GoPro stickers on helmets.
Basically, the rule prohibits athletes from doing what they always do.
"I understand the Olympics are a moneymaking game, but it's sad for me to have all these sponsors who have really taken care of me and gotten me to the point that I'm at, and I'm on the biggest stage I can possibly be on, and I can't give them the representation they deserve," said Nevada freeskier David Wise, a favorite for gold in the Olympic debut of halfpipe skiing. "It's unfortunate for us."
At the London Olympics in 2012, track and field athletes took to Twitter with #wedemandchange and #rule40 hashtags protesting the restrictions. As the prevalence of social media grows, the blackout at these Olympic Games figures to stir more protests.
Some companies dance around the Rule 40 restrictions.
Swimmer Michael Phelps bobbed to beats on his Sol Republic headphones as he limbered up poolside. Many companies are blasting promotional videos of their athletes in the weeks leading up to the blackout. Other companies are outsourcing marketing campaigns to millions of regular Twitter folks who can carry a brand's message.
"We are seeing fans carrying messages for the athletes," said John Grady, a University of South Carolina professor who specializes in athlete management and designing protection strategies for sponsors looking to deflect "ambush marketing" by other companies.
The game has changed with the explosion of Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and Facebook, Grady said.
"And trying to regulate social media in any context is going to be a losing battle," he said. "Now, the consumers are tweeting about athletes and products. Clever marketing online spreads messages to a wider audience in a crazy, unregulated space. Rule 40 hasn't kept pace with technology and it will challenge Olympic organizers."
Many ski and snowboard sponsors trumpeted their athletes in massive campaigns leading up to the Olympic blackout. Camera juggernaut GoPro has blanketed its deep roster of Sochi-bound athletes — including Brown, White, Hannah Teter, Jamie Anderson and Kaya Turski — with its trademark footage, having the athletes capture their training as they work toward Sochi.
And GoPro's sports marketing chief, Todd Ballard, suspects Olympic network NBC will be challenged to not include any of that GoPro footage in coverage of freeskiing and snowboarding athletes.
How could the network not at least note the private — and amply logoed — halfpipe GoPro built for White in Australia? Or use the gyroscopic footage of Bobby Brown at the Red Bull-sponsored private slopestyle course near Kirkwood, Calif.?
"First and foremost, we want to make sure our athletes are protected and they are not putting themselves in any situation that could prohibit them from being successful at the Olympics," Ballard said. "But I expect we'll see some GoPro footage and people will recognize it. This Olympics will be interesting because of the freeskiing element. A lot of athletes new to the Olympics are social media-savvy, and it's a big part of their DNA. It will be interesting to see how they adapt to Rule 40."
Sponsors are cutting back on both traditional and online marketing as well as social media during the blackout. With a ban on the iconic Red Bull brand, the energy drink maker has designed custom helmets for its dozens of Olympics-bound athletes, including Steamboat Springs halfpipe snowboarder Arielle Gold, whose new helmet features horses and a barn.
An avid user of Twitter and Instagram, Gold, 17, said: "I hope someone talks to me about what I can and can't do. I don't want to mess anything up."
Red Bull's Nick Goepper, a favorite for ski slopestyle gold, said he is giving up on social media during the Olympics.
"I think it might be safer not to tweet anything," said the 19-year-old. "All I know, it's pretty much zero tolerance for branding."
During the London Olympics, Red Bull removed athlete pages from its website. The company will help its athletes follow Olympic rules this time around.
Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/jasontblevins