Why the U.S. Olympic Committee Cracked Down on a Knitting Group

Illustration by 731 Lexington; Photograph by Getty Images

As it did for the 2008 and 2010 Olympic Games, the online knitting group Ravelry plans next month to host its own Ravelympics, in which thousands of knitters attempt to complete an ambitious project—such as knitting a hat for the first time, or finishing an entire blanket—during the two weeks the Games take place. They form teams and challenge each other to events such as “scarf hockey” and “sock put.” Often people knit their Ravelympic projects while watching the real Olympics on television. As long as a craft is completed, each Ravelete, as the participants call themselves, wins a virtual medal. “The idea was that these amazing events would inspire us and motivate us in our own projects,” says Kimberli Smith, 47, the Ravelry member who first conceived of the Ravelympics.

The first year the knitting games took place, more than 2,000 people completed close to 8,900 projects. This year, more than 7,500 people have signed up. On July 27, the 2012 Ravelympics kicks off with a marathon knit-off during the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Games. At least, that was the plan. Earlier this week, the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) sent the 2 million-member knitting group a cease-and-desist letter, asking them to stop.

“We believe using the name ‘Ravelympics’ for a competition that involves an afghan marathon, scarf hockey and sweater triathlon, among others, tends to denigrate the true nature of the Olympic Games,” the USOC wrote in the letter. “It is disrespectful to our country’s finest athletes and fails to recognize or appreciate their hard work.”

This is not the first time the USOC has contacted Ravelry regarding its Olympic knitting enthusiasm. During the 2010 Ravelympics, the group sold a $6 handmade enamel lapel pin called “2010 Ravelympic Badge of Glory” and donated half the proceeds to the Special Olympics. The badge featured an image of a dog wearing a knit hat and a gold medal. It was very cute, but there was a problem: The Olympic theme infringed on the USOC’s intellectual-property rights. Since 1978, the nonprofit organization has had exclusive rights to control the commercial use of the word “Olympics” (or anything that resembles the word) in the U.S. Companies like Nike, Adidas, and Gatorade pay millions of dollars for the rights to use the Olympic name and rings on their products—something Ravelry obviously didn’t do. After they were contacted by the USOC, the group immediately stopped selling the pin, although they’d already made enough money to donate $3,200 to the Special Olympics.

The Ravelry vs. USOC situation highlights the difficulty companies and organizations face when they try to protect their copyrighted work on the Internet. Ravelry was founded in 2006 as a social networking site and pattern database for people who knit; a place where users could discuss different types of yarn, swap knitting patterns, and form online friendships through their shared hobby. A search through the site today reveals a lot of original handiwork, but also the occasional trademark-infringing craft. There are Batman sweaters, sock patterns that incorporate MLB team logos, and even an X-Men finger puppet. All of these projects are handmade and none of the finished items are for sale, although every once in a while a user will ask for compensation for a knitting pattern. (For its part, the MLB seems to encourage these knitting projects and has reportedly featured some in a display at the Baseball Hall of Fame.)

In its cease-and-desist letter, the USOC linked to nine Ravelry members’ Olympic-themed projects, both free and for sale, and asked that they be taken down. Targeted items included a free hat pattern inspired by Lindsey Vonn, a free crocheted Olympic ring necklace pattern, and a $2 Olympic-themed dish towel pattern. “As far as individuals using [the Olympic logo] and supporting the Olympic Games, I think that’s great,” says USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky. “For personal use. But this is about using our trademark in a commercial way without giving us that information.” In other words, you can knit as many Olympic-themed dish towels as you like, but you can’t sell the pattern for $2 on the Internet.

“Most people on Ravelry understand that even though it doesn’t seem like a big deal, there is a legitimate trademark issue and that the USOC has to aggressively protect its trademark to hang on to it,” says Donna Bowman, 46, one of the co-organizers of the Ravelympics. “But we don’t understand how the idea that having a competition that references the Olympics is somehow taking away from the athletes and the prestige of the brand.”

It’s this aspect of the USOC’s letter—the request that the Ravelympics be renamed, and the insistence that a knitting competition somehow disrespects the athletes—that has the social networking site in an uproar.

“Our active user base has a fierce love for this site,” says Bowman. “I don’t know if Facebook inspires the same kind of passion and love that we have for this thing.” Ravelry’s founders don’t have the funds to fight a legal battle with the USOC, and if pressed, Bowman says they will agree to change the name of the Ravelympics. But they won’t do it quietly. A surprising number of the group’s members have taken to Facebook, Twitter, and other online outlets to protest the USOC’s decision. “I hope this is the death of the corrupt USOC,” one user wrote on the U.S. Olympic Team’s Facebook wall. “I got a nice new hashtag for ya.. #StitchThis,” wrote another. “I don’t think they knew the hornet’s nest they were poking,” says Bowman. One blog, called Mason-Dixon Knitting, is even trying to knit enough pairs of socks for Stephen Colbert that he takes notice and addresses the Ravelympics’ plight on his TV show. “All these knitters with pointy sticks have a lot more presence and support on the Internet than they probably imagined.”

The USOC, for its part, has released two written apologies on its website, but it has not backtracked on its requests. “That [cease-and-desist] letter was sent from our law department and was written by a summer law clerk,” explains Sandusky. “The ‘denigration’ statement was made in error. The letter was probably a bit strongly worded and we regret that and apologize to the community. But we don’t apologize for trying to protect our right to the term ‘Olympics.’”

Oh, well. If Ravelry can’t have the Olympics, at least the group can rely on another massive knitting competition: its annual Tour de Fleece.