Olympics awash in Twitter, for better or worse
It’s amazing how much trouble can be stirred up in 140
But also how much intimacy, excitement, global scope and, yes,
general zaniness. For better and for worse, the 2012 Olympics are
being shaped, shaken and indisputably changed by a social media
revolution that four years ago in Beijing was in its
Four days into the games, we’ve already seen (and this is but a
-an athletes’ Twitter campaign objecting to sponsorship
restrictions that went viral under the hashtag
-a TV viewers uprising over Olympic broadcaster NBC’s decision
not to live stream the opening ceremony.
-two athletes kicked out for racist tweets.
-a fan arrested Tuesday after a series of threatening posts,
including one in which he vowed to drown a British diver, and
another in which he told the athlete he had failed his dead father
by not winning.
For Olympics organizers who pride themselves on putting on a
carefully choreographed – obsessively controlled, some would say –
17-day show, the bursts of Twitter activity are like gamma rays
escaping from a solar flare. They’re impossible to stop and
spellbinding to behold.
”I don’t think we would seek to control it, nor could we,”
said International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams. He said
more than 15 million fans are following and participating in the
Olympic experience via Twitter and other social media platforms,
not to mention a good proportion of the 10,800 athletes. ”Used the
right way, we embrace social media,” he said. ”And, if you look
at the guidelines, we positively encourage it.”
The problem is, it isn’t always used that way.
The immediacy and public nature of Twitter and its propensity to
induce off-the-cuff irreverence, and sometimes breathtaking
ugliness, has added a new and chaotic element to an event where
everything from urine samples to sponsors’ logos to London traffic
is arranged with overcaffeinated attention to detail worthy of a
”Though organizers have spent months touting this as the first
social media Summer Games, many of them seem to have been totally
unprepared for the huge impact that Twitter has had,” said Andy
Miah, director of the Creative Futures Institute at the University
of the West of Scotland. ”I think there was some naivete about the
likely role of social media from both participants and from the
organizers. Many of them appear to have been wrongfooted.”
Twitter has been used in many ways during its brief life – some
very organized and tactical, some more spontaneous and disorderly.
It has been a tool of protest and organization for the Occupy Wall
Street movement and Arab Spring activists. Yet it has also led to
the downfall of click-happy politicians, and the sometimes
embarrassing late-night revelations of A-list celebrities.
The social network is now at the fingertips of 140 million
users, up from a few million when the Olympics were held in Beijing
in 2008. The San Francisco-based company says there have been more
than 10 million tweets mentioning the Olympics during the first few
days of the games. The exponential jump from four years ago has
been driven by the rise of smartphones, now carried by spectators
and athletes alike, each watching each other watch each other.
Which of course raises the question: When exuberant, often young
athletes are going through the experience of their lives on one
hand, and it’s unfolding in a deeply controlled environment on the
other, how do you make sure everyone gets what they need without it
all turning to anarchy?
The IOC, Miah says, has tried to exert control by creating its
own social media hub – gathering athletes’ tweets and posts from
Facebook, the other formidable player in this landscape. But it
hasn’t always worked out as planned.
On Saturday, U.S. women’s soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo launched a
Twitter outburst against Brandi Chastain, the former American
soccer player who is now an analyst on NBC. ”Its 2 bad we can’t
have commentators who better represents the team&knows more
about the game,” Solo wrote.
Dozens of athletes, including some British soccer players, have
taken to Twitter to promote their sponsors’ products, a violation
of Olympic rules that could theoretically lead to their expulsions.
Some Olympians, undoubtedly delighting agents and marketers back
home, have started an online campaign to get the rules changed.
And it’s not just athletes who are stirring the stew of
British lawmaker Aidan Burley earned a sharp rebuke from fellow
conservatives after he tweeted that Danny Boyle’s critically
acclaimed opening ceremony, which told the story of Britain’s
history in a rousing mix of music, symbolism and showmanship, was
”leftie multicultural crap.”
Twitter on Tuesday was forced to apologize to a British
journalist whose account was blocked after he criticized NBC’s
coverage of the opening ceremony and posted the e-mail of a network
executive. And thousands of disgruntled Olympics viewers set up
hashtag ”nbcfail” on Twitter to air complaints about the media
Then there’s the teenager from Dorset who was arrested Tuesday
after a series of offensive and, authorities say, menacing tweets
directed at British Olympian Tom Daley. The suspect could be
prosecuted under British law.
And yet Twitter has fast become an indispensable part of the
Olympic scene. It is as valuable to today’s spectators as programs
and scorecards were to another generation, and it is just as
important to the athletes seeking to connect with supporters from
behind the Olympic curtain.
For young fans, ”take away Twitter and you take away part of
the experience,” said Steve Jones, a professor who studies online
culture and communications at the University of Illinois at
Olympians have used Twitter to tell supporters what they are
eating, how they are feeling and who they are hanging out with.
Jamaican mega-star Usain Bolt tweeted about his craving for
chicken. American hurdler Lolo Jones revealed she’s a virgin.
Perhaps that is too much information and intimacy for some, but
Twitter, Facebook and their many copycats are not going anywhere,
and it’s time we got used to it.
Andy Hunt, the head of the British Olympic association, found
himself dealing with a double whammy of Twitter eruptions –
defending his star diver against social-network vitriol while
vowing to look into whether the host country’s soccer players
should be disciplined for using the site for ”ambush
”I think everyone knows, if you use social media extensively,
you have to accept you get bad as well as good,” Hunt told
journalists. ”And sometimes bad is wholly unacceptable.”
Associated Press reporters David Stringer and Jake Coyle
contributed. Paul Haven reported from London, Barbara Ortutay from
Follow on Twitter: Paul Haven: http://www.twitter.com/paulhaven
and Barbara Ortutay: http://www.twitter.com/barbaraortutay