At age 15, Rudy Garcia-Tolson had a deal with his mom. If he qualified for the Athens 2004 Games, he could get a tattoo of the Olympic rings.
Garcia-Tolson made it to Greece and even earned a 200m individual medley swimming gold medal. He inked the rings, in color, on the back of his left shoulder.
And if Garcia-Tolson competes at his fourth straight Paralympics in September, he is ready to tape over the tattoo to keep from being disqualified in Rio.
A rule not allowing body advertisements that has started to be fully enforced in recent years made headlines two weeks ago, when a British Paralympic swimmer was disqualified from a European Championships race for not covering up his Olympic rings tattoo.
It has led to explanations clarifying that the Olympics and Paralympics are two very separate events.
“I fully feel like I’m an Olympian,” Garcia-Tolson said last week at an event for one of his sponsors, Citi, in New York.
Technically, Garcia-Tolson is not an Olympian. He is a Paralympian. Garcia-Tolson’s Twitter bio lists the word “Olympic” three times and “Paralympic” zero times.
An International Paralympic Committee swimming rule states, “body advertisements are not allowed in any way whatsoever (this includes tattoos and symbols).”
“I don’t really agree with it, but it’s the rules, so we’re just going to have to go with it,” Garcia-Tolson said as the famous “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” music played in the auditorium following his presentation with three-time Olympic beach volleyball champion Kerri Walsh Jennings. “I’m going to follow the rules. I don’t want to put all this hard work in and then get disqualified for something I have on my body.”
If people attend the Paralympics, which are held weeks after the Olympics at the same venues, they will very often see the Paralympic Agitos logo where the Olympic logo once appeared.
It is visual proof that the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee are separate entities.
“This rule is in place because the IPC wants Paralympic athletes to show pride in promoting the Paralympic Movement, including its symbol the Agitos,” an IPC spokesman said in an email. “Displaying the Olympic rings confuses the public and impacts the understanding about the Paralympic brand which is different to that of the Olympic one.”
The rule was first in place for all sports at the London 2012 Paralympics, but it wasn’t strictly enforced, according to the International Paralympic Committee.
In London, Garcia-Tolson said he covered up his Olympic rings tattoo with marker, but by the time he jumped into the pool to try and win his third straight 200m IM title, it had worn off. The Olympic rings were clearly visible, but he wasn’t disqualified and kept his silver medal.
“That was kind of unintentional, but at the same time I feel like that’s who I am,” Garcia-Tolson said.
Garcia-Tolson said he’s considered getting a tattoo of the Paralympic Agitos symbol, but the Paralympic logo has changed at least twice during his life.
On his team of Paralympians, Garcia-Tolson said the standard rule is, if you earn a gold medal, a reward is to get the Olympic rings tattoo.
“We feel like we should be treated no differently than our Olympic teammates,” he said. “The title, the names, to me it’s just kind of unimportant. Who’s to say in 20 years we don’t have the same logo [as the Olympics].”
Garcia-Tolson has no problem adhering to the rule and emphasized he embraces the Paralympic movement.
“The world needs motivation right now,” Garcia-Tolson said. “It needs to be inspired. I think that’s where the Paralympics comes in.”
But, he added, rules are meant to be changed.
“I’m sure this one will be changed here in the next few Games or so,” he said.