Let The Capitalist Games Begin

Brother, can you spare plane fare to Barcelona? Once among the most powerful symbols of the Soviet state, the Olympic team of pole vaulter Sergei Bubka and gymnast Svetlana Boginskaya has fallen on hard times. With only days until the Summer Games begin in Spain, cash is short.

The renamed Commonwealth of Independent States' Unified Team managed last February to scrape up rubles enough to send a full squad to the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. But in the months since, the economy has gone from also-ran to no-show in the former Soviet Union. "The government has its own headaches, and we don't want to go begging to them," says Vitaly Smirnov, president of the Russian Olympic Committee, who is leading the Unified Team's efforts to raise $3.5 million for the Barcelona trip.

So they're trying a little capitalism. Like any big-time Olympic squad, the Unified Team is hotly pursuing corporate sponsorships and licensing agreements.

Smirnov first hit pay dirt with German sneaker-maker Adidas. The United Team's package includes cash, sweatsuits, and equipment. Adidas promotions manager Antje Koenig says it is money well spent, because the Unified Team's expected high medal count should make Adidas products highly visible.

The Adidas link, though, means other sporting-goods companies are staying away for now. Nike Inc. has a shoe-endorsement deal with Bubka, but it won't consider working with the entire Unified Team until the Olympics are over and the Adidas contract expires.

PRECIOUS PINS. Smirnov also is finding dealmaking difficult in the U.S. He says he got a thumbs-down from longtime International Olympic Committee supporter Coca-Cola Co. Atlanta-based Coke says only that it already supports the Unified team as part of its overall sponsorship agreement with the IOC.

But Turner Broadcasting System Inc. came up with $500,000, ostensibly for rights to the 1994 Goodwill Games between U.S. and former Soviet athletes. Says Goodwill Games head Jack Kelly: "It's in our interest for the Unified Team to remain competitive and field the best possible team in Barcelona."

Smirnov's journeys also have introduced him to American litigiousness. Because the Unified Team will probably disband after Barcelona, its apparel may become collectors' items. So in June, Atlanta-based Collegiate Licensing Inc. began negotiating for the American rights to sell Unified Team gear, including pins and trading cards. The deal could total from $200,000 to $300,000.

But now, two other American companies claim the exclusive rights to market Unified Team trading cards in the U.S. Smirnov insists no such rights have been sold, but Collegiate Licensing Chairman William Battle is worried: "This could blow the whole deal."

Smirnov says he is about halfway to securing the money the Unified Team needs. But he's already thinking beyond Barcelona. "We're trying to survive this year and then work on the future," he says. "We want to show American companies that we can be good for business." Well said, Comrade Smirnov.

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