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Hockey star Sidney Crosby has become the public face of Tim Hortons Inc., appearing on television daily in the coffee chain's ads to make patriotic comments about Canada's deep connection with hockey.

But for two weeks during the Winter Olympics, viewers will have to get used to seeing much less of the fresh-faced skater - at least during commercial breaks.

The dry spell stems from an international Olympic rule prohibiting athletes from doing advertising endorsements during the Games to preserve the purity of their role as competitors - and to avoid the possibility they could confer Olympic glory on companies that are not official Games sponsors.

Olympic competitors must sign an agreement with the Canadian Olympic Committee pledging not to breach this rule, said Bill Cooper, director of commercial rights management for the Vancouver Olympic organizing group VANOC.

While some exceptions are available, notably for athletes hired by official Olympic sponsors and athletes with long-standing deals with sports equipment manufacturers, Mr. Cooper said the core principle is that athletes are not supposed to be advertisers during the Games.

"It should be about the sport and not about commercial messaging," Mr. Cooper said.

The rule can present challenges for any competitor with a long-term endorsement deal, but it can create particular hurdles for professionals who have numerous deals that must be managed during the Olympics, including hockey stars such as Mr. Crosby.

Mr. Cooper said VANOC was willing to grant exceptions for some athletes with long-standing relationships with a non-Olympic sponsor, but the decisions are based on a review of whether the campaign could give viewers the wrong impression that an advertiser is linked to the Olympics.

Tim Hortons, which is not an official Olympic sponsor, says it will pull Mr. Crosby's latest ad from the airways while he leads Canada's men's hockey team at the Olympics rather than risk breaching rules.

Company spokesman David Morelli said Tims has not faced any pressure from VANOC, but decided to bench Mr. Crosby during the Olympics "out of respect for Sidney and the Games' organizers."

"We chose to avoid testing the guidelines for commercial use of athletes," Mr. Morelli said.

But that doesn't mean the coffee chain is prepared to sit on the sidelines, either.

"We have some other spots planned that express our special connection with Canadians," Mr. Morelli said.

Queen's University marketing professor Ken Wong said he expects companies would not have huge difficulties with the rule, even if it means keeping their stars under wraps, because there is still plenty of time before and after the Games to take advantage of sponsorships.

"You can really heavy-up [ads]right until the deadline and then you cut it off," he said. "But by that time, the association between the athlete and your business has already been made."

Manitoba phone company MTS Allstream Inc. says it has planned around the restrictions that would be in place for champion speed skater Cindy Klassen. Ms. Klassen reportedly signed a $1-million sponsorship contract with the phone firm after the 2006 Olympic Games, believed to be the biggest deal for an amateur athlete in Canada.

Spokesman Greg Burch said MTS does not have Ms. Klassen in its current ad campaign, a strategy planned long in advance to avoid issues during the Olympics.

"This is something that our plans had anticipated. We hadn't planned to run any Cindy ads during the Olympics, so this isn't an issue for us."

By the book

What's the problem?

Rule 41 of the Olympic Charter of the International Olympic Committee bans advertising by athletes during the competition, stating "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."

What are the exceptions?

Olympic organizers can make exceptions in some circumstances. These include companies that are official Olympic sponsors, companies that are part of an officially recognized group of sports equipment manufacturers, and companies with long-standing sponsorship relationships with an athlete. In the latter case, officials will assess factors such as the intensity of the ad campaign, whether the ads contain Olympic references, and whether the ads are new or part of a long-running campaign. The rules also do not apply to athletes promoting charitable or non-commercial causes.

Janet McFarland

Follow on Twitter: @JMcFarlandGlobe

 

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