Xtreme Rat Challenge

A Wesleyan student uses a box of Cheerios to coax Rizzo to take a leap in the long jump competition at Nebraska Wesleyan's 37th annual Xtreme Rat Challenge in 2011. The name was changed from "Rat Olympics" in 2003 after a representative of the U.S. Olympic Committee told the university it was in violation of federal law.

TED KIRK/Lincoln Journal Star

According to the London Guardian, "branding police" will scour the streets of London to make sure that shopkeepers and retailers aren't illegally invoking the 2012 Olympics.

Encouraging patrons to come into your pub and watch the "London Games" is a no-no. Athletes have been asked to report marketing ambushes from non-sponsors on OlympicGamesMonitoring.com.

It's all part of the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act, a piece of legislation meant to protect the Olympic brand.

Sara Olson, director of marketing at Nebraska Wesleyan University, is all too familiar with the corresponding American law. For nearly 10 years, she instinctively has kept watch for storefronts using the five signature hoops or the word "Olympic."

“Every time I see an event that has ‘Olympics’ in it, I want to warn them,” she said.

On Jan. 24, 2003, 567 days before they lit the torch in Athens, Greece, Olson fielded a call at Wesleyan. A woman on the other end of the line said she was representing the U.S. Olympic Committee, and that the university was violating federal law by hosting its annual Rat Olympics.

The Rat Olympics involved students from the Learning and Motivation class encouraging lab rats to walk tightropes and scale rope swings, among other events. It was an end-of-a-semester activity created by psychology professor Marty Klein, who has since resigned.

Olson assumed that anyone calling to complain about a rat competition's name was pranking her.

“When I got the call, I really thought someone was playing a joke,” she said.

So Olson laughed.

“The lady said, 'You need to take me seriously,’” Olson said.

From there, it was all business.

The Rat Olympics, Olson was told, were in violation of the Ted Stevens Olympic Games Act of 1998, which states in part that the USOC has exclusive rights to “the words ‘Olympic, ‘Olympiad,’ ‘Citius Altius Fortius,’ ‘Paralympic,’ ‘Paralympiad,’ ‘Pan-American,’ ‘America Espirito Sport Fraternite,’ or any combination of those words.”

A few days after the call, Olson said Wesleyan staff decided not to fight the USOC, and began the process to change the name of its rat competition. Sports Illustrated, in turn, deemed the USOC's demand "This Week's Sign of the Apocalypse."

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Klein wasn't a fan of the decision to change the name.

“It wasn’t that I was so married to it,” Klein said. “It was about how wrong it was to threaten Wesleyan over a trivial thing that was a tradition (at the school).”

He argued then that Wesleyan should let the USOC sue, and make them prove that someone might confuse a group of students coaxing lab rats across tightropes with, say, the Dream Team. He also suggested that the Rat Olympics be merged into one word, the RatOlympics, to dodge a potential suit.

“I really tried to persuade them to challenge it,” he said.

But that’s not how things transpired. Staff created a contest to rename the Rat Olympics, and then-Gov. Mike Johanns presided over the unveiling of the new name, the Xtreme Rat Challenge.

He’s noticed that a few other universities, such as BYU-Idaho, have since dubbed similar events the Rat Olympics without being threatened legally.

In Lincoln, the Xtreme Rat Challenge powers on. The 39th competition will take place this December. And Klein plans to attend the time trials, as he has for years since he stopped teaching the class.

“I had a lot of students tell me it was the single most useful class they ever had,” he said.

Reach Cory Matteson at 402-473-7438 or cmatteson@journalstar.com.

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