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From Onion Rings To Decathalete, Olympic Effort Protects Logos, Sponsors

July 15, 1996 GMT

ATLANTA (AP) _ Gotcha! The Ring Police are on the case.

This time, the culprit was The Varsity restaurant.

The problem? A tiny souvenir pin depicting one of the 68-year-old restaurant’s trademark products _ onion rings. Five nicely rounded onion rings; kind of like the five Olympic rings.

Not so fast, the fast-food eatery was warned by the Ring Police. That’s officially ACOP (Atlanta Centennial Olympic Properties), on the lookout in an unprecedented multimillion-dollar effort to protect Olympic trademarks and the games’ corporate sponsors.

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They’ve nabbed dozens of other, usually bigger, targets, including Fuji film and the U.S. Postal Service. They are poised for quick action, from friendly persuasion to hard-ball litigation to public humiliation, when the games begin Friday.

``I thought they looked like onion rings in a walking box,″ said Nancy Simms, The Varsity’s general manager, who dutifully shipped back all the unsold pins. ``I guess when you’re part of the Olympics, everything looks like Olympic rings.″

The Varsity pin brouhaha was ``sort of an extreme case,″ agreed Darby Coker, marketing spokesman for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG). But, he said, it shows that the crackdown doesn’t ``make a distinction between big and small, well-intentioned or badly intentioned.

``It’s really a survival issue, ultimately. For the Olympic Games, the way they’re done; and for the way the team is funded and supported in the United States.″

More than $10 million has already been allocated for heading off unauthorized sales of merchandise with Olympic trademarks, intercepting counterfeit merchandise, and stopping ``ambush marketing,″ in which non-sponsors try to crowd into the Olympic picture.

``They’ve done a great job on protection,″ said David Archer, a spokesman for Bausch & Lomb, which has paid about $40 million as an Olympic worldwide sponsor. ``It’s our biggest issue.″

Archer is on the sponsor’s ``ambush team″ here, on alert to report any horning in by its optical-product competitors.

Such sponsorships, which Archer said have not only boosted Bausch & Lomb sales but strengthened the company’s global image, are often credited with keeping the Olympics alive and growing in the past decade or so. Sponsors have contributed a half-billion dollars, or about one-third of the total budget, for the Atlanta Games.

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Millions more comes from sales of souvenirs and licensed merchandise.

Last year, Billy Payne, president of ACOG, wrote to some 900 advertising and public relations firms urging ``a collective voice against parasite marketing before it damages the Olympic movement.″

Coker said the response has ``so far been very, very positive.″

A dozen companies have been sued, most for trademark infringements, Coker said. In many other cases, agreements were reached quickly.

The U.S. Postal Service wound up agreeing to give up two-thirds of the proceeds it makes from sale of T-shirts depicting Olympic stamps. Just last week, the U.S. Olympic Committee warned Fuji film and U.S. decathalon star Dan O’Brien about 18 billboards with him representing Fuji.

One of the display boards stood right behind a billboard for Kodak, an Olympics’ $40 million sponsor. It also overlooked the new Centennial Olympic Park, where sponsors have pavilions. Fuji agreed to take down the boards during the games.

Coker said the goal isn’t to stop competitors from advertising, but to keep sponsors from being undermined by competitors whose ads might imply association with the games.

Some 200 people will be involved in the policing effort during the games, Coker said. Advertising will be monitored twice daily in 126 U.S. markets, he said.

If it’s determined that the ads are misleading consumers, the committee may call attention to them on the Internet and is ready to launch a counter-advertising campaign aimed at shaming the offending corporations.

``We haven’t encountered any bad guys yet,″ Coker added, saying most of the problems seem to have stemmed from ``simply misinterpretation and miscommunication.″

Back at The Varsity, they’re selling a set of 20 pins. There’s a chili dog pin, a french fries pin; even another onion rings pin.

``They’re just a bunch of onion rings,″ Simms said. ``Not an Olympic shape to be found.″