CHICAGO ( MainStreet) -- The Summer Olympics, which kick off this weekend in London, remain one of the most potent brands in the world. The competition between athletes from almost every nation symbolizes our most cherished ideals of sports: the thrill of competition, the power of perseverance, the bonds of national pride.And yet, despite the focus on amateur athletes, the modern Olympic Games are also about money -- lots and lots of money. Sales of tickets and broadcasting rights aren't enough to cover all the costs that come with staging such a large-scale, multiweek event, so the International Olympic Committee -- just like every other sports governing body -- has turned to corporate sponsors to help foot the bills. It is precisely because the Olympics conjures up such powerful, inspirational images that large corporations are willing to pay big bucks to be associated with it. For the London Games, 11 companies paid for highest level of sponsorship, The Olympic Partner program, which allows them to feature the Olympic five-ring logo in their worldwide advertising and guarantees industry sector exclusivity. ( Coca-Cola ( KO) is the only beverage sponsor, for example, just as Procter & Gamble ( PG) is the only one representing personal care products.) Below that top tier, there are three other levels of domestic sponsorship (National Partners, Official Supporters and Official Providers and Suppliers). All totaled, the London Olympics Organizing Committee has raised more than $1 billion dollars from sponsorship deals. Although the exact agreements are confidential, it has been reported that some of the largest companies paid $100 million or more for the privilege of allying themselves with the Olympic brand. But all that corporate spending has prevented smaller companies in the U.K. from latching on to the excitement generated by the Games. The British Parliament passed a law barring nonsponsor businesses from using any word or phrase associated with the Olympics in their signage or marketing (including "London 2012" and any reference to gold, silver and bronze medals). Hundreds of enforcers have begun patrolling the area around major venues, and violators can be fined up to ₤20,000. Grumbling about the so-called "brand police" has led to the expected outrage over minor infractions (such as a butcher who was ordered to take down a sign of intertwined rings made from sausages). Even Prince William's in-laws were told to remove some Olympic-inspired content from the website of their party-supply business.
Over the past week or so, officials have been trying to strike a conciliatory mood, giving an official OK to bakeries that want to sell Olympic-themed cakes or pastries. The owner of this formalwear shop even found a creative way to subvert the ban, giving his own twist to the rings logo. But, for the most part, independent businesses in Britain have been shut out from the Olympic marketing machine. On this side of the Atlantic, small businesses have a little more leeway in showing their support for Team USA, although using the official rings logo or copyrighted phrases are still a no-no. Olympic-themed menu items on restaurant menus or Olympic torch-shaped cookies are unlikely to attract attention from copyright attorneys. While Olympic-themed marketing is most likely to spring up in the hometowns of athletes competing in London, even business owners who have no personal connection to the Games can make a difference in the lives of young athletes. Across the U.S., stores and restaurants and car dealerships sponsor Little League, peewee football and soccer teams, helping pay the cost of uniforms and supplies. Local sponsors are especially important for lower-profile sports that don't attract as much public attention. Local kids' soccer teams often have brigades of motivated parents who are willing to go out and drum up donations. But track teams, archery clubs and gymnasts also have to pay for equipment and travel to out-of-state competitions. Small-business sponsors can make a very real impact in those athletes' lives. The Olympics themselves may not be very small-business-friendly. But smaller companies can still celebrate the values the Olympics represents. And who knows, the young athlete you help buy a uniform today may one day be stepping up to an Olympic podium to accept a medal.