Greek sprinters’ withdrawal could save sponsor deals

Greece’s top sprinting duo quit the Olympics to end a drugs row and save the nation’s honor, but the move also saved their bank accounts by making it hard for sponsors to dump them. A whiff of scandal has hung over Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou since they missed a drugs test a week yesterday, were hurt in a strange motorcycle crash and twice postponed International Olympic Committee disciplinary hearings. But the decision to withdraw or, in the words of one official, «jump before they were pushed,» meant no wrongdoing was established, and the buck was passed to the IAAF, athletics’ governing body. Until the IAAF reach a final decision, sponsors can only cut losses by toning down their marketing campaigns, said Andy Korman, a sports lawyer at Hammonds law firm in London. «If they were convicted of a drug offense, there would be some value to the sponsor coming out and publicly disassociating themselves from the athletes,» Korman said. «If the whole thing just drags on and on, sponsors are best off letting it lie and not making a big fuss of it.» Adidas, with a contract with Thanou until the end of the year, said there was a termination clause in the contract, so if an athlete is banned or found guilty of doping, it would end. «But we really need this final word,» said Jan Runau, Adidas’s PR director. «For now, we are changing billboards and outdoor posters wherever we can, so at our office building we are replacing Thanou with Ian Thorpe.» A spokeswoman for Kenteris’s sponsor Puma said, as things stood, his contract was valid until end-2004. «But we will go ahead and remove Kenteris’s image from our store windows and replace it with the Greek flag, based on the fact that he is not competing in the Games,» Puma’s head of International PR, Lisa Beachy, told Reuters. «If there is any contract violation, then we would have to terminate it. Obviously with the IAAF hearing coming up, we will keep our eyes and ears on what is happening.» Cold shoulder The two athletes were rated as Greece’s best chance of track medals at the homecoming Games and domestic companies used their image on everything from telephone cards to clothes adverts. The cold-shoulder treatment has been quite subtle. As the bizarre saga unfolded over the weekend, some of the Athens 2004 billboards featuring the pair were taken down, while ads in the weekend papers by the local telecoms provider that sponsors Kenteris also went unsighted. Recalling products with the pair’s image would cause more trouble, cost and bad publicity than letting the case fade until contracts run out, said a source in one of the sponsors. «Coming down hard on them might even backfire if the public finally decides they are on their side,» the source added. It is not uncommon for sponsors to be embarrassed by less-than-clear-cut cases of misbehaving by their athletes. «What sponsors tend to do is sit tight and see what happens,» said Korman, citing the case of basketball star Kobe Bryant who was benched by some sponsors after rape charges were filed against him. One sponsor phased out Bryant’s image on its chocolate spread labels and another stopped running his ads, but no company dropped him outright. «It is all up to the drafting,» Korman said. «If the athletes’ lawyers have negotiated properly, they will ensure that allegations or suspicions of any misbehaving are not enough, there has to be a finding.» «If the sponsor is clever, they can put in words to the effect the athlete should not be involved in a public scandal, so Kenteris and Thanou would have fallen foul of that by now.»

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