Long before the Olympic torch begins its cross-country trek to Atlanta, automakers are hustling to turn the quadrennial global sportsfest into a marketing bonanza.

Remember the days when there was one official camera, film, soap or soft drink of the Olympic games? Forget that.

Those inclusive folks at the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games have done their best to spread the wealth, especially when it comes to car and truck sponsorships.

Three automakers--General Motors Corp., Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. and BMW AG--boast official sponsorships.

GM is the official domestic car and truck company while Nissan is the official import sport/utility vehicle (SUV), light truck and minivan sponsor. BMW is the official international sponsor.

Even the supplier community is represented. Textron Inc., which makes Bell helicopters, Cessna aircraft, E-Z-GO golf carts and instrument panels and interior trim, signed on at the end of 1995.

For BMW, car sponsorship is simply not enough.

"We're also the official motorcycle and mountain bike of the games," says Jack Pitney of BMW of North America.

Part of the deal is to deploy your company's products or services in a way that makes the games run smoother. So GM, Nissan and BMW will provide thousands of vans, SUVs and cars to get athletes, officials and media from hotels to events and back.

IBM Corp. will dispatch hundreds of workers to operate computers that remind athletes of event locations and times.

Exactly how does one become a sponsor?

It helps if you've done this before. Sponsors of the 1992 games have first rights of refusal, says Scott Mall, spokesman for the Atlanta Committee. Atlanta-based Coca-cola Co., for example, has been an Olympic sponsor since 1928. Pepsi-Cola could offer to build a stadium, put up a luxury hotel for Olympic athletes and move its headquarters to Atlanta, but that wouldn't get them a sponsorship as long as Coke wanted to hold on.

The automotive sponsorships opened up this year when Chrysler Corp., which held the distinction in the '92 Summer games and '94 Winter games, decided to pass.

"As it turned out, we ended up splitting the category between General Motors, Nissan and BMW, with each having a separate and distinct category," says Mr. Mall.

Why so many automotive sponsors?

Partly, GM felt that it couldn't meet all of our needs in terms of all the vehicles we needed--about 5,000 during the duration of the games," says Mr. Mall. "Obviously they could have, but it would have required diverting vehicles that customers wanted to buy."

Currently there are 40 sponsors, and that could grow to 45 by this summer. They are paying anywhere from $2 million to $70 million. Generally, the earlier a company signs on, the more it pays.

But Mr. Mall underscores that organizers of the Atlanta Games are consciously trying to reduce the commercial clutter. For example, the 1976 Games in Montreal had more than 600 sponsors, suppliers and licensees.

Isn't this a trend that could spin out of control? Is the noble Olympic movement becoming NASCAR in Nikes? Imagine Carl Lewis wheeling around the quarter-mile oval with logos covering every square centimeter of his partially clothed body. Could corporate tattoos be far behind?

No way, says Mr. Mall.

"During the games we have what we call 'clean venue' rules, so when television cameras sweep around the stadium, there will be no corporate logo displayed;' he says.

Essentially, it's about building good will. Attaching your corporate identity to a wholesome and noble enterprise that pulls the world together can't hurt in an age of drastic corporate downsizing, radical restructuring and job insecurity. And, of course, don't forget the mega-millions who'll be watching worldwide.

Reflecting its participation, GM has opened an Olympic theme exhibit in the lobby of the General Motors Building in New York. Nissan has a similar display at its offices in Carson, CA,

Tracking the Olympic Torch Relay on its three-month journey from Los Angeles to Atlanta, a BMW 3-series will accompany the 10,000 torchbearers who each carry the flame for up to I km.

An artist will paint a map of the route that literally wraps around the car from the left front quarter-panel to the right front quarter-panel. Prominent residents or public officials of each town where the entourage stops along the way will sign the car.

But there is more than patriotic zeal to this gig.

BMW dealers were the first to burst out of the starting blocks with their special edition 525i, with a distinctive Oxford green paint job and parchment leather interior.

On the door sills a distinctive "Olympic Games Edition" script is stamped above the five-ring Olympic symbol. All this can be yours for a mere $40,650.

Not to be outdone, Buick is offering special editions of both its Regal and Skylark. Each feature a 5-ring Olympic badge on both fenders and, for the Regal, a gold accented Buick tri-shield emblem and bucket seats with the Olympic emblem on the headrest, all with a choice of four colors--green, red, white or black.

The Regal package prices out at $21,145 while the Skylark stickers at $16,413.

Later this month, Philip Guarascio, GM's vice president for North American marketing and advertising, will lay out the company's broader Olympics promotional plan.

Nissan will provide hundreds of Pathfinders, Quests and pickup trucks for use during the games, but there are no plans for a limited-edition Olympic vehicle.

"Nissan sending American athletes to the Olympics is an attractive proposition to us,' says Jerry Florence, a former GM executive who's now Nissan's vice president of brand and consumer marketing.

Mr. Florence will not disclose how much Nissan is paying for its sponsorship. "The bottom line is, we want to sell vehicles as a result of this," he says.

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