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Are flag-themed Apple Watch bands a dig at Samsung's Olympics sponsorship

The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio is one for the history books, no doubt. Controversy, namely in the form of pool algae and allegations of performance-enhancing drug usage, have cast a shadow over the festivities, sure, but this year’s games have elevated by historic achievements like Katie Ledecky’s record-breaking 800-meter freestyle, gymnast Simone Biles’ all-around gold medal win, and Fiji’s first gold medal win. Purveyors of goods from book bags to plushies have attempted to ride the coattails of good vibes, unsurprisingly, and now even Apple is jumping aboard. Last week, the Cupertino, California-based company announced a limited run of country flag Apple Watch bands timed to coincide with the Olympics.

Apple debuted a series of 14 $100 watch bands last week — including bands for the United States, Canada, and Brazil — at its brick-and-mortar outlet at the VillageMall shopping center in Barra de Tijuca, about six miles from the Olympic village. They were an overnight hit, apparently — the shop was “close to selling out” last week, according to Reuters, and several eBay auctions for the bands have already climbed into the hundreds of dollars.

Olympians have been given front-of-the-line privileges. German’s team manager told iPhone Ticker that the Rio Apple Store is giving away two free bands to any customers “who can show proof of Olympic participation,” and several have already taken advantage. U.S. sprinter Trayvon Bromell and defending decathlon champion Ashton Eaton tweeted photos of themselves wearing the bands on Twitter.

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Apple’s promotion appears to a clever subversion of Olympic Games sponsor Samsung. The Seoul, South Korea-based electronics giant, which became a global sponsor of the Games in 1998, has historically gone to great lengths to snuff out competitors. This year, for example, it requested Olympic participants cover Apple logos on iPhones during opening ceremonies, and in July, it debuted a limited-edition variant of the Galaxy S7 edge, the “Olympics Games edition,” as the “official phone” of the Rio Games.

Olympic sponsors like Samsung can pay as much as $100 million over four years to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for exclusive Olympic marketing rights, according to Reuters. The reason? Incomparable exposure. More than 32.7 million tuned in to watch U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps compete for Olympic gold, for instance — viewership unheard of for a single event, short of the Super Bowl.

While Apple’s stunt comes close to encroaching on Samsung’s paid turf, it doesn’t quite. As long as Apple refrains from displaying the bands “alongside the Olympics logo … oy any other obvious Games symbol,” it’s in the clear. “As long as they do not use the Olympic logo, the Rio 2016 logo or our look, there is no infringement,” Sylmara Multini, director of licensing and retail for the Rio 2016 organizing committee, told Reuters.

Other watchband makers might not be, though. In the middle of August, Casetify launched a new series of $50 nylon watch bands in 16 different Olympics-inspired color combinations  — “The World Flags” collection includes the flag colors of the U.S., U.K., Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Scotland, Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and Brazil. Unlike Apple’s limited-edition bands, the company’s promotional material make conspicuous mention of the Olympic Games in Rio. As of yet, the IOC has yet to issue a response.