Social Media at the Olympics

With the massively exponential rise of social media’s popularity, the International Olympic Committee has faced a new challenge in recent years. In attempts to control the type of social media content and output coming from Olympic athletes, new ordinaces have been put into place to ensure that the Olympic Games remain a fair platform, a level playing field full of good sportsmanship, a spotlight to be shared by all.

That hasn’t exactly gone over so well.

Because I didn’t have cable (or a TV for that matter) this summer, I was forced to constantly rely on the internet to “watch the games.” And in the wake of the gigantic NBC controversy, where the network chose to require a username and password for paying subscribers to access the games online, I was essentially forced out of viewing most competitions, and rely on social media instead. This is especially funny for me, because generally, I pay no attention to sports unless it’s bringing the entire world together. So to follow athletes on Twitter and read sports articles on Facebook, it was a truly new corner of the social media world for me to explore.

While following the Olympic athletes on Twitter, some competitors such as LoLo Jones exhibited a fantastic universal spirit of good sportsmanship, encouraging members in Team USA across different sports, as well as praising athletes from other countries. Some competitors, however, had a different approach. The attractive and talented but stupid dunce-of-all-dunces Ryan Lochte mainly tweeted (poorly-spelled) tweets about himself and his own games. “Lochte Nation” was how he addressed his fanbase. And boy, did he do it often.

Additionally some athletes not only failed to restrain themselves from blatant self-promotion, but they also went on to insult other athletes from past and current games, and even entire entire races and nationalities. One Greek athlete was actually barred from competing after tweeting one such offensive remark.

According to Brian Mossop’s article on WIRED’s Playbook, “The Olympics Just Doesn’t Get Social Media,” the IOC implemented “Rule 40” of the Olympic charter, attempting to regulate the way in which Olympians can represent themselves and the Games on their Twitters, Facebooks, and other social media platforms. Such rules include that tweets must be “first-person, diary-type format,” and cannot directly report on the outcome of the Games themselves. Mainly, as Mossop cites, this is the Olympic Committee’s attempt to save the traditional reporting for networks like NBC with exclusive and expensive broadcasting rights.

Firstly, just because they’re tweeting in a personal matter doesn’t mean they won’t tweet derogatory tweets. Secondly, from what I gleamed off of Twitter during the Games, some of the most positive and generally good-willed, life-affirming, championing-of-the-human-spirit tweets came from athletes that were reporting on the outcomes of various events, congratulating competitors in real time, from a vantage point that is most relatable.

Mossop is right. The IOC is holding a muddled view of the social media “phenomenon” (which can’t really be considered a phenomenon any longer when is it domesticated, or engrained in daily life for so many people), approaching it from both the technological determinist and the social constructionist discourses. There is clear evidence of what Nancy Baym calls “moral panic” within the IOC and their view on social media; they regulate to censor, because they don’t think Olympians will censor themselves otherwise. They regulate to maintain control in ratings; they don’t entrust reporting to the people who are, in many ways, most qualified.

The International Olympic Committee just doesn’t “get” social media.

In his article, Mossop smartly argues that the Olympic games, for almost all involved, will be the highlight of their entire lives. To restrict what they can and cannot document and share with their friends, their families, their fans, their followers during the two most important weeks of their career isn’t right. Mossop holds the most realistic social shaping discourse that Baym discusses in Personal Connections In The Digital Age; the uses of technology, namely social media, allows the Olympians to use the tech in the ways that they want to, taking advantage of its affordances. The availability of technology and its relatively newfound forms aren’t forcing them or causing them to say or do anything that they wouldn’t say or do otherwise. Rather, it’s heighening their platform, promoting the amazing spectacle of the Olympics and creating a greater scope of vision into the real experience. Going off of the positive messages from Michael Wesch’s idyllic view of the Youtube and the entire Internet in away, isn’t this the literal incarnation of Marshall McLuhan’s imagined Global Village? Excuse them, NBC and money-hungry advertisers, if the Olympians steal their spotlight back.

Of course, some of this moral panic is justified with instances of age-inappropriate or offensive material. But, in way, can’t this be a good thing? There certainly should be a moral code of conduct that all Olympians that follow. So when they don’t follow this code, in either person-to-person interaction or on their social media, they should be judged and dealt with fairly. The IOC fails to recognize an athlete’s social media presence as an extension of their own person, their self-expression, their self-documentation of some of the most important moments in their lives.

Now don’t get me started on NBC’s horrendous “coverage” of “the” social media surrounding the Games. Just don’t.



  1. Such an interesting (and funny) post! I think you touch upon something that is incredibly problematic in the sports (and indeed other) worlds. Traditionally, athlete spokespeople and endorsers have been immensely coveted by corporate America–just look at any Subway commercial–and the public words of Olympic athletes in particular have been big selling points for in commercial media. Athlete sponsorship outside the games was once so hotly contested that the Olympic Committee ruled that athletes could not capitalize on such sponsorships until retirement, a rule that led then-most-decorated-in-one-games swimmer Mark Spitz to retire immediately upon winning his seven medals. Now, however, we’re in an age where athlete sponsorship is ubiquitous and, more importantly, there is no longer a buffer between an athlete and their thoughts. Twitter and like platforms are lending voices and instant response times to athletes like never before, and, as you pointed out through Lochte, it can be a form of a PR nightmare to not have such a close control over these athletes’ opinions, whether solicited or no. As I don’t see this problem going away any time soon–rather, I see it increasing in future games–I think it will be interesting to see how/if commercial and managerial forces attempt to control athletes through media as massive and rapidly paced as Twiter as they have in the past. Hopefully, Subway commercials in four years will clue us in automatically, but I wonder if the celebrity athlete endorsement will slowly become a thing of the past with increased social media ubiquity and connectivity.

  2. I don’t think it’s fair to say that the IOC doesn’t “get Twitter.” I mean, I think the whole point of Twitter is that no one really gets it—in fact, I don’t even think Twitter “gets” Twitter. What’s amazing about Twitter is how it epitomizes the social construction of technology discourse. Twitter’s users can say or post anything they want to within a 140-character limit… the outcomes, either positive or negative, are endless.

    Focusing on the negative, I believe, in enacting Rule 40, the IOC is trying to protect the participating athletes from life-changing repercussions of a seemingly thoughtless tweet (remember that most tweets are categorized as “babble”). One message, that is probably less than 140 characters, could mean the end of a lifetime of training and a budding career.

    Most people don’t realize this, but the one thing harder than making it as an Olympic athlete is gaining and maintaining your celebrity status and entailing endorsements after the games. As an Olympic athlete, you have two weeks every four years to make a name and a brand for yourself that will pay the bills once your glory days are over. And unless you’re not human/Michael Phelps, chances are you have one, maybe two games to do just that. However, if you’re a javelin-thrower from Greece who has a knack for derogatory tweets, you don’t even get that first shot.

    It’s also important to note that the IOC isn’t the first large organization to enact such a rule. Television networks and film studios make sure to include strict confidentiality clauses with all talent and crew on set, especially with their tech-savvy child actors. This prevents any storylines, cameos, etc. to be leaked to the public, which in turn prevents major financial losses for them (e.g. people not going to see the film/box office losses, advertisers pulling out, etc.).

    You would think that someone who has the maturity to dedicate themselves to training for the Olympics would be able to “keep it together” on Twitter, but the reality is, they don’t. In fact, I doubt most of the people on Twitter are extra-weary of what they’re putting out there. Rule 40 shouldn’t be seen as a way to cheat or censor Olympic athletes—it serves as protection from their own words and prevents a lifetime of regret.

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