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persuasion

Hockey gold medalist Meaghan Mikkelson is among the Winter Olympians with an endorsement from a COC sponsor – Canadian Tire’s Sport Chek brand.

Long before the International Olympic Committee announced last year that it would loosen a restrictive rule limiting advertising during the Olympic Games, Canadians were already working on a change. It all started with Sidney Crosby.

During the Vancouver Games, a Tim Hortons commercial continued to run on TV featuring the hockey superstar who would score the "golden goal." The ad featured Mr. Crosby on a stranded team bus, who spots a local kids' pond hockey game and joins in. It was unusual because Tim Hortons wasn't a sponsor of the Canadian Olympic Committee; the COC worked with the company to ensure the ad did not use any Games imagery or suggest a connection to the COC. But it allowed Tims to benefit from its sponsorship of Mr. Crosby at a time when he was under an even brighter global spotlight than usual.

The IOC gives some leeway to each country-level Olympic committee in terms of how stringently they apply the rules, explained Erin Mathany, director of strategic partnerships for the COC. That's why Canada was able to experiment with allowing advertisers more wiggle room before the IOC officially changed "Rule 40" last year. That rule was intended to protect the exclusive ad rights of official sponsors such as Visa and McDonald's (and in the COC's case, those such as BCE Inc. and Hudson's Bay) by prohibiting non-sponsors from promoting their endorsements of individual Olympians during a blackout window around the Games.

"We think it's important for Corporate Canada to invest in athletes on a long-term basis," Ms. Mathany said. "We have to balance that with the need for the support of the Olympic movement."

Now that the change is official, advertisers can apply for a waiver to allow them to promote those endorsements, as long as they steer clear of using Olympics terminology or other brand assets such as the rings, and as long as the company has a longer-term commitment to the athlete. The waiver applications were due on March 27 and Ms. Mathany said "dozens" were granted, but would not specify which advertisers got them, citing confidentiality.

"It makes us more marketable," said Adam van Koeverden, a kayaking gold medalist and COC board member who will be competing in Rio. "When people are watching us most, if sponsors we've been with for eight, 10, 12 years can't advertise their support, that makes a big difference."

It has affected him directly: Just after winning gold and bronze at the 2004 Games in Athens, Mr. van Koeverden signed an endorsement deal with Roots Canada Ltd. The next year, though, Hudson's Bay Co. beat out Roots to become the official clothier of Team Canada.

"Roots was no longer able to [advertise around] me during subsequent Olympics," he recalled. "They were able to say congratulations when I won a medal, but it had to be a bit vague."

While he no longer works with Roots, Mr. van Koeverden has been sponsored for years by shoe company Asics, which also sponsors runner Lanni Marchant and canoeist Mark Oldershaw.

"They're a great silent partner," he said. "But they should expect more than that."

Asics, however, will not be among the advertisers taking advantage of a waiver. The company applied, but was unable to submit examples of ads four months in advance, as required.

"In today's world, that's a long time," said Yves Simard, vice-president of sales and marketing at Asics Canada, adding that Asics did not shoot some of its marketing materials until the Athletics Canada trials in Edmonton just this week. "[The timeline] is not adapted to the realities of social media – that is how we promote our athletes."

Mr. Simard believes the rules are still too restrictive.

"If we can't advertise that our athletes are Olympians, their value is diminished," he said.

One Canadian athlete who could carry a campaign is sprinter Andre De Grasse, a medal contender. But one of his sponsors, Pizza Pizza Royalty Corp., declined to apply for a waiver this time around. Its current TV commercial featuring Mr. De Grasse will be pulled by July 25.

"I wouldn't want there to be any confusion for Pizza Pizza, 'Are you a sponsor, or are you not?'" said chief marketing officer Pat Finelli.

In the United States, Under Armour Inc. has secured a waiver for Rio to promote its endorsement of swimmer Michael Phelps.

In Canada, the biggest changes may come not in Rio, but in Pyeongchang, South Korea, which will host the 2018 Games. Advertisers may need time to familiarize themselves with the new rules – and in Canada, more marketing investment tends to be directed to Winter Games.

"We are actively selling this now as a benefit … talking about re-upping through Pyeongchang with the ambition of gaining more value with the rule change," said Russell Reimer, an athlete representative at Manifesto Sport Management in Calgary.

"For those not playing within the Olympic space, who have not made that investment before, it's hard to suddenly adjust to Olympic thinking and budgets. The cost of Olympic advertising is still the cost of Olympic advertising," Mr. Reimer said. "You have to have the right athlete who could carry a campaign."

Hockey gold medalist Meaghan Mikkelson is among the Winter Olympians with an endorsement from a COC sponsor – Canadian Tire's Sport Chek brand – but other athletes depend on endorsements from a wider range of advertisers beyond official COC partners.

"For some athletes it's not always easy to obtain, and retain, sponsorships," she said. "This gives non-partners the opportunity to get into the market… it really encourages companies to get involved."

That encouragement of endorsements is key, since a full-time job doesn't leave much time for training at the Olympic level.

"If I hadn't had sponsors," Mr. van Koeverden said, "I wouldn't have a career."