The 2012 Olympic Games in London are the first to use social media to spread information on a broad scale. While the Swiss Olympic team and athletes have been warming up to the trend, it hasn’t always been plain sailing.
The London Games are proving to be a litmus test of how social media will co-exist alongside a major sporting event, with the fallout ranging from anger over sponsorship rules to disqualification over offensive tweets.
So far the casualties have ranged from corporations, such as United States television broadcaster NBC, to athletes (see sidebar). Among them, Swiss footballer Michel Morganella, who was sent home after insulting the South Korean team via Twitter.
At one point the International Olympic Committee urged fans to only use Twitter in “urgent” cases, saying tweeting spectators had jammed cyclists’ GPS transmitters used for race timing, thereby interfering with the BBC’s coverage of a cycling race.
For anyone unfamiliar with social networking, even the vocabulary used - tweeting, liking, following, posting - is a bit mystifying. But in the eyes of the initiated, social media is a perfect way of connecting with people all over the world.
“Social media is about your own voice, and what you’re feeling and experiencing,” Alex Huot, head of social media for the IOC, told swissinfo.ch.
“When you’re hearing what the athlete really feels about something, that’s really meaningful and impactful, and increases the engagement, which is what we’re really seeking from a social media perspective.”
That view is echoed by the Swiss Olympic association’s webmaster and social media head, Philipp Furrer.
“First we want to connect with sport fans and with athletes,” Furrer told swissinfo.ch. “We want to make the ‘Olympic Family’ come alive, share the Olympic spirit, share the emotions which make sport what it is.”
But the organisation has a goal above and beyond promoting the feel-good aspects of the Games, according to Furrer. “We also want to share topics that are important for Swiss Olympic, such as prevention in sports, ethical principles in sport,” he said.
“And finally, it is also about brand management, reputation and awareness.”
A coordinated approach
Swiss Olympic’s presence in London includes a Facebook page, a daily blog, YouTube videos, and Twitter – all to help raise the profile of athletes and their sports.
The 2012 Swiss Olympic team includes 102 athletes, as well as coaches and officials. All are free to share their perspectives on the Games.
Swiss sports teams’ social media presence at the Olympics “is not coordinated in the sense that we tell the athletes or federations what they should do”, said Furrer. Instead, Swiss Olympic offers support; for example, by interpreting the IOC’s many social media rules.
“We talked with every [Swiss] federation and most of the athletes,” Furrer said. ”We tried to tell them in a simple way what they can and can’t do.”
According to its four-page social media, blogging and Internet guidelines, the IOC “encourages participants and other accredited persons to post comments on social media platforms or websites and tweet during the Olympic Games”. However, these comments should conform to the Olympic spirit, be “dignified and in good taste, and not contain vulgar or obscene words or images”.
This proved to be a problem not only for Swiss footballer Morganella, but also for Greek triple jumper Paraskevi Papahristou who posted a disparaging tweet about Africans in Greece.
Athletes have also had to contend with the dark side of Twitter. In the most prominent case, British diver Tom Daley outed a Twitter troll who had posted abuse on his feed after he failed to win a medal.
Social media also runs into problems when it comes to sponsorship. Under the IOC’s ‘Rule 40’, athletes have been prohibited from naming sponsors other than the official Olympic sponsors on their social media pages at any time from the opening of the Olympic Village on July 16 to its close on August 15.
For Swiss tennis star Roger Federer, this means no mention of athletic shoe company Nike on his Facebook page (which has over 11 million likes), since Adidas is an official sponsor of the London games. Just one day before the opening of the Olympic Village, Federer’s Facebook page had featured a photo of 287 pairs of limited edition tennis shoes donated by Nike in recognition of his Wimbledon win and 287 weeks as number one.
The IOC’s sponsorship rule – in force to protect its 11 major backers such as Adidas, Coca-Cola, McDonalds - angered athletes who said it was vital to their careers and livelihood to be able to namecheck their sponsors.
As a result, US track and field athletes, who do not receive government grants toward their training, launched a Twitter campaign for Rule 40 to be relaxed – to no avail. One IOC spokesman said a “huge number” of athletes understood why the rule was in place.
Very few Swiss athletes have Federer’s drawing power, and so their social media presence isn’t likely to play much of a role in obtaining sponsorship. Compare, for example, Swiss gymnast Giulia Steingruber’s official Facebook page, created in 2012 (1020 likes), and the page of American gymnast Gabrielle Douglas, winner of the women’s all-around title (469,398 likes, plus 520,488 Twitter followers).
If anything, Swiss athletes’ use of social media is focused on improving their reputation and attracting fans.
“We started in Vancouver with social media, but this time it’s much bigger,” said Swiss Olympic’s Furrer. “Lots of athletes are tweeting or posting.”
Sharing via social media started even before the Games began. Swiss marathon runner Viktor Röthlin posted a photo on Facebook of himself stuck in traffic with the comment: “Four hours from airport to Olympic Village. The transportation concept could use some improvement!” Cue fans’ comments, such as: “Let’s hope it’ll be better on the marathon course on August 12th”.
Some shared their victories as well as their defeats. “Yeaahh!! Beat China in the first group game. We’re rocking the town – will you join us?” tweeted beach volleyballers Sascha Heyer and Sébastien Chevallier. (See photo)
Triathlon athlete Nicola Spirig, who won Switzerland’s first gold, saluted “the best coach in the world, Olympic gold was only possible thru you”, to her 1,973 Twitter followers.
After failing to qualify for the finals of the 200 metre crawl, swimmer Dominik Meichtry tweeted: “Tough times don’t last.. . . Tough people do!”
And cyclist Fabian Cancellara, who crashed into a barrier while rounding a curve 15km before the end of a 250km race, wrote soon afterward: “Thanks for the amazing support on the road and for all the tweets after my crash. It helps a lot to have the head up after the bad luck.”
But despite the media hype surrounding the first ‘Social Media Games’ in London, “the “priority is always practice, and the focus is on the events, not the media,” noted Swiss beach volleyball team leader Philippe Saxer.