IOC says it is “totally relaxed” about the Olympic rings tattoo

May 4, 2016

The damage control arrived in my Inbox the next morning. The IOC wanted me to know that it is “totally relaxed” about Olympians wearing the rings tattoo in competition. IOC Director of Communications, Mark Adams, wrote that: “this announcement was made by the IPC not the IOC.” The distinction, he said, was that “it was an IPC event not an IOC one. They made the decision – we would be totally relaxed for a Paralympian or an Olympian to have a rings tattoo.”

Cue the bus, screeching to a halt, as the International Paralympic Committee is thrown under it. An interesting sacrifice of an organization that the IOC calls a close partner. Indeed, they are in the midst of a multi-year agreement that extends through 2020. On the IOC website (, President Jacques Rogge states that “the IOC and the IPC have a long and strong relationship and it is with great pleasure that we are able to extend this agreement with the IPC and ensure that the Olympic and Paralympic Games continue to be held in the same host cities until 2020. Our continued financial support to the Paralympics shows the Olympic Movement is universal.”

Continued support… Yes, well, evidently that does not include support for athletes with an impairment and the Olympic rings tattoo in a visible place on their bodies.

I wrote back to the IOC director that this seemed to place them on a rather slippery slope, in terms of the rights of Paralympic athletes. Are the rights of athletes with an impairment distinct – and lesser – than those of able-bodied athletes? We are talking about the same imagery here – the tattoo of the Olympic rings. A Paralympic athlete, Josef Craig, was disqualified for having this tattoo on his body.

The IOC response to being called out on this was to distance itself in a hurry from its close partner, the International Paralympic Committee – an organization that most I’m sure figured was more or less the same entity, or at least very much entwined. And they are – just read President Rogge’s statement on the IOC website. But recognizing a PR disaster, they did what large bureaucracies do: They pointed away the blame and did their best to separate themselves from the issue.

At the heart of this debacle is the IOC’s Rule 40, which states that “no competitor, coach, trainer or official who participates in the Olympic Games may allow his person, name, picture or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games.”

I get it. The keepers of the Games are highly sensitive about corporate logos. They go to great lengths to control them while the flame is lit. But here’s the meta twist: That also includes their own corporate logo, the Olympic rings. The IOC protects its rings logo extremely closely. It creates quite a pickle when athletes start carrying around that logo as a part of their skin. To the athletes that ink-stain on their bodies for life is a symbol that is the antithesis of corporate. The rings are about an ideal, of pure competition and unity, and also about individual achievement. Advertising? That refers to those companies that try to cozy up to the rings and gain some positive PR by proximity.

Yet according to the official that disqualified Josef Craig, “Body advertising is not allowed in any way whatsoever, and that includes the Olympic rings.”

But this official was from the IPC, not the IOC, and the IOC would like you to know that it is “totally relaxed” about those ubiquitous rings tattoos. Unlike their partner organization that leads Paralympic athletes. Apparently, it’s all about the “O”. “lympic” is in both names, after all. One begins with “Para”, the other with that vowel in the shape of a circle. You would have been foolish to assume that the two were related.

It wasn’t us, says the IOC. We’re chill and cool and totally relaxed when it comes to the rings. That is, until you try to use it without our permission.