Skip to navigationSkip to content

Ideas

Our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.

Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery in the Olympics' eyes.
Reuters/Sergio Moraes
Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery in the Olympics’ eyes.
FORMERLY KNOWN AS

The IOC got mad at this artisanal salami maker for using “Olympic” in their name

When you walk into the Olympia Provisions offices in the Southeast Industrial neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, you can see hints of the past if you look carefully enough. The base of the front desk reads “Olympic Provisions”—a discreet reminder that just two years ago, this small restaurant and charcuterie business was going through a surreal battle over its name with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the organization that coordinates and plans the Olympic games.

Back in 2009, salumist and first-generation Greek-American Elias Cairo opened a restaurant in the Olympic Mills building, a historic yellow structure on Portland’s east side. This building, combined with his heritage, inspired him to name his business Olympic Provisions. “We were going to do farmers markets and the restaurant, and provide the provisions for the Olympic Mills building,” he says. “So Olympic Provisions was quaint and cute.”

The five owners of Olympic Provisions did their due diligence before naming their restaurant and charcuterie products. They searched numerous databases and Google before settling on their name, and they didn’t see any red flags in their research.

“It’s funny because in the first years, someone called and said something like, You can’t be called Olympic Provisions because of the Olympic Committee, and we assumed that it was totally a crank call,” remembers Michelle Cairo, Elias’s sister and fellow co-owner. “And then we never heard anything about it again until September of 2014.”

That’s when they got their first letter in the mail. The certified letter included the Olympic rings in the top left corner and a drawing of the American flag. It outlined the IOC’s demand that Olympic Provisions change their name, despite acknowledging “your company is not using the Olympic Rings or otherwise seeking to capitalize upon the goodwill of the Olympic Movement.”

“My first instinct was to fight it, because we are obviously not the Olympics, and no one is confused,” Michelle says. “So I reached out to an attorney, and he just starts laughing and tells me, Nobody in history has ever beat this, and they have a whole lot more money than you have.”

Which wasn’t to say that business was slow. By this time, Olympic Provisions had gone from a small local restaurant to major national brand with product distribution in 46 states, a cookbook deal, a famed Portlandia skit, and a national commercial with Triscuit crackers that was set to air that winter. They were just gaining steam, so the timing to be forced to change their name? Not ideal.

“We tried to mediate, just to give us time. We had so many assets that we had to worry about: the restaurants, the packaging, the delivery trucks, our marketing, the Triscuit commercial, the cookbook … The IOC even sent Triscuit a cease-and-desist letter on the commercial. It was just snowballing everywhere,” Michelle says.

The IOC and the United States Olympic Committee have gone to great lengths to protect their brand and identity. Like any conglomerate, they pay close attention to other businesses and will stop any brand from infringing on their territory. But unlike other businesses, the Olympic Committee has taken this one step further with a federal statute known as the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, which protects Olympic-related trademarks.

The Stevens Act, passed in 1998, gives the Olympic Committee the exclusive right to use and license the term “Olympiad,” the interlocking rings, event mottos, and “Olympic” trademarks. The United States Olympic Committee licenses the rights to these trademarks to generate funds to support Team USA, which doesn’t receive funding from the United States government. The only businesses exempt from this congressional act are businesses that existed before 1950—which is why the Olympic Mills building was able to keep its name—and businesses within a short radius of the Olympic mountain range in Washington state, as long as they do not have national distribution.

Perhaps the IOC’s most bizarre cease-and-desist letter was sent to Raverly, a website for the knitting community, which hosted a knitting competition called “Ravelympics” in conjunction with the 2012 London Olympics. After the IOC asked for the event to change its name, hundreds of thousands of angry, social media-savvy knitters began posting hostile messages to Twitter and Facebook, causing a public-relations storm right before the London games. While the IOC did apologize to the knitting community—twice—they still insisted on a name change.

Olympic Provisions decided to put up a fight and tried to negotiate with the IOC until the end of 2014. When negotiations began, the Olympic Provisions team kept their sense of humor about the ordeal, sending a letter to the IOC suggesting creative and unorthodox partnership ideas. “For instance, our salami are nearly the exact size of a regulation baton used in relay races,” they wrote. “If used during training, the extra weight will make the real batons seem virtually nonexistent during sanctioned events, giving our sprinters a critical edge. Not to mention, our runners also would have a tasty snack at the end of a tough day of workouts to supply them with vital nutrients and electrolytes.

“It’s so defeating as this really small business to lose your name, to lose so much money, and to lose business over something so ridiculous.”

The IOC wasn’t swayed by their convivial attitude, and the partners eventually had to cut their losses. “It’s so defeating as this really small business to lose your name, to lose so much money, and to lose business over something so ridiculous,” Michelle says. Deciding what to rename their business was a whole other issue. “The biggest argument our partners have ever had was over our name change,” Elias says. “It was brutal. We actually never got consensus—we ended up having to make it a truly anonymous vote.”

Family fallout aside, they estimate that changing their name from Olympic Provisions to Olympia Provisions cost at least $50,000 in the rebrand alone, and that’s not including attorney’s fees or lost business opportunities. That Triscuit commercial they had filmed prior to the cease-and-desist letter? It only played twice before it was pulled off of the air, costing Triscuit hundreds of thousands of dollars, as well as being a huge missed opportunity for Olympia Provisions’ nationwide sales.

Then there was the highly anticipated cookbook that they were nearly finished producing. “We were terrified that we were going to lose our book deal—we thought they could drop our contract and we wouldn’t have gotten paid for the years we spent working on it,” Elias says. “We were just about to go to print and had to tell our publisher that we had to change every mention of Olympic to Olympia.”

Luckily for Olympia Provisions, support for their brand was strong. All comments on articles and social media posts announcing the name change were in favor of the small business. After all, nobody had ever confused Olympic Provisions with the Olympic Games—customers were irate on their behalf. With the start of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, some customers still remember the 2014 debacle and have continued to vocalize their support on social media.

The IOC is hardly the first large organization to go after a small business for trademark infringement. In 1998, a small sex shop named “Victor’s Little Secret” in Elizabethtown, Kentucky received a cease-and-desist letter from Limited, LTD, the parent company of Victoria’s Secret. They argued in court for 12 years to keep the original name. They lost. In 2009, the publishing house behind Vogue magazine filed a civil suit with the Swiss courts over a watch brand using the words “VOGUE my style” in an ad campaign, claiming the ad campaign would cause confusion. The courts agreed. And in 2015, Under Armour apparel has started suing every company using the word “armor” in their name, including a small biblical clothing company called Armor & Glory.

The IOC’s territorial approach is a threat to small businesses everywhere. As Olympic Provisions said in the closing paragraphs of their first letter back to the IOC: We have all worked so very hard to build an American company struggling to realize the American dream. It would be a horrible irony if Team U.S.A. contributed in any way to our demise. Let us all be Olympians.

Subscribe to the Daily Brief, our morning email with news and insights you need to understand our changing world.

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.