The IP Journey of an Olympic Games
By Carlos Castro, Head of Intellectual Property, Legal Affairs Department, International Olympic Committee, Lausanne, Switzerland
The Olympic Games are a unique global sporting event that celebrates the best of sports and the best of the host city and country. Organizing an edition of the Games involves the commitment and drive of the host city, the Organizing Committees of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, athletes, National Olympic Committees, International Sports Federations, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its affiliated entities and other members of the Olympic Movement.
Hosting the Games offers a host city manifold benefits and opportunities – and requires many years of careful planning. All Olympic stakeholders work together closely and for many years to make the Games a success and to ensure they leave a positive and lasting legacy.
The IOC is a not-for-profit independent international organization that is committed to building a better world through sport. As the leader of the Olympic Movement, the IOC acts as a catalyst for collaboration between all parties of the Olympic family, from the National Olympic Committees, the International Sports Federations, the athletes and the Organizing Committees to the Olympic marketing partners, broadcast partners and United Nations (UN) agencies. The IOC shepherds success through a wide range of programs and projects. On this basis, it ensures the regular celebration of the Olympic Games, supports all affiliated member organizations of the Olympic Movement, and strongly encourages, by appropriate means, the promotion of the Olympic values.
When most people think about the Olympic Games, they wonder who will be the next Usain Bolt, Yelena Isinbaeva, Michael Phelps, Yu Na Kim, Lindsey Vonn or Lin Dan. Athletes with their sights on the next Games will be sizing up their chances of a medal at Tokyo 2020 or Beijing 2022. One of the ways in which the IOC, the host city and other stakeholders, support the athletes in their efforts to achieve exceptional performances is through ensuring that a robust intellectual property (IP) strategy is in place to protect the IP assets associated with the Games. IP protection is crucial in ensuring that we can continue to generate revenues, which are then redistributed for the benefit of sports and athletes around the world.
How the IOC distributes its funds
Ninety percent (90%) of the revenues generated by the IOC are distributed to:
- Individual athletes and coaches, via the Olympic Solidarity Fund;
- The Organizing Committee of each Olympic Games;
- National Olympic Committees to help support athletes at national and local levels;
- International Federations to run and promote their sports globally;
- Other sports organizations associated with the Olympic Movement to promote the development of sports worldwide;
- IOC activities, projects and programs that support the staging of the Games and promote the worldwide development of sports and the Olympic Movement, such as its various cooperation activities with the UN, including: “Peace through Sports;” “Social development through Sports;” the Promotion of Gender Equality in Sports; “Athletes365 Career+;” and more.
The IP journey of the Olympic Games: where it begins
The IP journey of each edition of the Games starts around 10 years before the Olympic flame leaves Olympia in Greece and makes its way to the host city where it lights the Olympic Cauldron at the Opening Ceremony. At every stage of that journey, IP is created, commissioned, acquired or otherwise secured. One could say, the strategic use of IP and the rights that protect all tangible and intangible assets associated with the Games actually ensures that they happen. Let’s see how.
The first stage of the IP journey: the process of selecting a host city
The process of selecting a host city starts when interested cities and National Olympic Committees explore and express their interest in hosting the Games. This allows the IOC to gain an understanding of the opportunities and risks associated each city before inviting them to develop a fully detailed application.
It is common for cities to register trademarks at this early stage of their Olympic journey, well before the formal candidature process starts. For example, trademarks have already been registered for the Olympic Games in Tokyo 2020, Paris 2024, Beijing 2022 and Los Angeles 2028.
Likewise, domain names are registered within various generic top-level and country-code top-level domains. For instance, the candidate cities for the Olympic Winter Games in 2026 have already secured the domain names: www.stockholm-are2026.com and www.milanocortina2026.coni.it. The aim here is to preserve the necessary online ecosystem and prevent any abusive use of domain names (cybersquatting) in relation to a prospective host city.
Cities that take part in the formal candidature process submit a candidature file, which includes detailed plans of how they will deliver the Games, providing information about cultural activities and relevant financial and technical information as well as legacy plans. This exhaustive document includes:
- a list of creative literary and artistic works, together with audio-visual content eligible for copyright protection;
- relevant designs, logos, emblems or slogans that are eligible for protection as trademarks or industrial designs; and
- data relating to the proposed delivery of the Games, the compilation, curation and arrangement of which may also be eligible for copyright protection.
At this stage of the selection process, the IOC grants candidate cities access to its copyright-protected audio-visual archives (the Olympic Archives) to assist in developing new or derivative works to support their applications, and build engagement within local communities.
When the IOC Session finally elects a host city of an edition of the Olympic Games, all the IP-protected assets developed in relation to the candidatures become part of the host city’s legacy to the Olympic Movement. Candidate cities also commit to transfer any knowledge acquired in hosting a Games to future host-city candidates.
The second stage of the IP journey: the preparation process
Once selected, a host city and the NOC of the host country sign a “host city contract (HCC) and create the OCOG, which becomes a legal entity in the host country, and is bound by the HCC. Then, a commercial plan for the Games is established on the basis of which the IOC and the International Paralympic Committee authorize the development of the OCOG’s domestic commercial programs, while granting the use of their IP-protected assets to domestic sponsors. The marketing plan supports the operational planning and staging of the Games.
The Olympic marketing partners, including companies participating in the Olympic partners worldwide sponsorship program (the Olympic Partners (TOP) programme) and the media organizations that the IOC has granted exclusive rights to broadcast and exhibit the Olympic Games, provide invaluable financial and operational support to the Olympic Games. They help to promote the Games and the host city to a global audience. Olympic marketing partners provide essential technical services and products, while supporting the work and preparations of the athletes that represent the 206 national organizing committees.
In return for their support and expertise, Olympic marketing partners are granted various exclusive rights, including worldwide marketing rights, broadcasting rights, hospitality rights, supply rights and other sponsorship benefits, and licenses to use the Olympic Rings, the Olympic Archives and other IP-protected assets relating to Olympic Games’, including the properties developed by the OCOG. These may include the use of emblems, mascots or composite logos.
The private funds derived from the implementation of the domestic and international commercial programs enable the Organizing Committees to plan, organize, finance and stage the Games. The funds flowing from the licensing program for the production and sale of Games’-related merchandize, ticket sales, as well as the IOC’s contribution, support the planning, organization, financing and staging of the Games. This IOC’s contribution is complemented by funds from other IOC- affiliated entities.
The OCOG is also responsible for organizing a Cultural Olympiad , in line with the Olympic Charter’s objective to encourage and support initiatives that blend sport with culture and education to promote Olympism. These activities take place in the lead up to and during the Olympic Games. They support the creation and diffusion of copyright-protected literary and artistic works, which demonstrate the host country’s cultural identity. A variety of cultural performances – music, dance, drama – protected as related rights, are also a feature of these events.
The third stage of the IP journey: hosting the Games
The ceremony marking the lighting of the Olympic flame in Olympia signals the start of the countdown towards the Olympic Games.
With Olympic torches specifically designed for each edition of the Games (protected by industrial design rights and in some cases, copyright and patents), the flame makes its way across Greece to the host country, before finally arriving at the Olympic Stadium, where the Olympic Cauldron sits (it too is protected by IP rights) in time for the Opening Ceremony.
The ceremonies at the Olympic Games are an extraordinary and intricately choreographed spectacle, featuring an amazing explosion of color and music. These spectacular events allow the host nation to display its unique identity and cultural traditions, within the framework of certain protocols dating from the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. Myriad IP-protected assets converge to create these iconic moments.
In addition, these ceremonies demonstrate the Olympic and Paralympic values, celebrate the athletes’ achievements, and engender a spirit of solidarity. They take the Olympic and Paralympic Games to a different level. They also demonstrate a host country’s commitment to IP insofar as they uphold the terms of the host city contract (which may also be complemented by additional IP-related agreements), by observing and respecting the third party IP rights of all those involved in every event of the Games, as broadcast to viewers around the globe.
The IP rights associated with the Games protect the integrity and uniqueness of the Olympic Games, together with their legacy. To this end, OCOGs, host cities and National Olympic Committees, take advantage of the protection afforded by IP rights, and also ensure they fulfil their IP-related obligations with respect to third parties. For example, an OCOG must ensure that all artistic works – including recorded or live music, musical compositions, arrangements, photos, audio-visual recordings and other content used in the ceremonies or other Games-related events, including competitions such as figure skating – are cleared for use. In the same way, an OCOG must ensure that all relevant rights-holders are remunerated for the public performance of their work at Olympic venues and across broadcast networks. The OCOG provides detailed reports of the planned use of music during Olympic events. This information is distributed to the Olympic rights-holding broadcasters, so they too fulfil their corresponding obligations with their collecting societies.
Finally, the related rights that protect the assets of broadcasters allow the Olympic Games to reach homes across the globe, via television, digital and media platforms. Thanks to Olympic rights-holding broadcasters, the Olympic Games is the most widely viewed sports event in the world. Broadcasters and media organizations pay significant sums for the exclusive right to beam the Olympic Games to our homes. The related rights they enjoy are fundamentally important as they enable them to cover the costs of broadcasting the Games and to get a return on their investment in doing so.
The relevance of IP
The revenues generated through the IOC’s strategic use of IP rights are redistributed across the Olympic Movement to individual athletes, Organizing Committees, National Olympic Committees, International Sports Federations and other sports organizations. These IP-generated funds also support sports in emerging nations and ensure the maximum number of people in the world experience the Olympic Games. The IOC achieves this through the sale of broadcast rights, by controlling and limiting the commercialization of the Games, and by enlisting the support of Olympic marketing partners.
IP protection is crucial in ensuring that we can continue to generate revenues, which are then redistributed for the benefit of sports and athletes around the world. Thanks to Olympic rights-holding broadcasters, the Olympic Games is the most widely viewed sports event in the world.
The IOC retains just 10 percent of these revenues to cover the operational costs of governing the Olympic Movement. It distributes the remaining 90 percent to organizations throughout the Olympic Movement, to support the staging of the Olympic Games, promote the worldwide development of sports and foster Olympic values. Every day, the IOC distributes over USD 3.4 million to support athletes and sports organizations at all levels around the world. It could not do this without the funds generated from the strategic use of its IP assets.
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