For some of the athletes competing at the Summer Olympics later this month, certain rules about what they can and cannot share over social media from London feel stifling and overbearing.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) generally encourages social media use by participants and fans, yet only allows tweets, blogs and posts to other social networks in “a first-person, diary-type format,” according to the IOC’s official guidelines. Sharing video from the Olympic Village is also forbidden, and athletes are required to obtain permission from their peers before posting photos they snap of other athletes.
These rules are in stark contrast to the robust social and digital strategy that the IOC is implementing for the London 2012 brand. In addition to event live streams, the IOC has official Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts. The IOC mobile app will even provide news and event results to fans in real time.
American sprinter Nick Symmonds told Mashable the rules are “ludicrous” and go too far.
“Why would you want to handicap a form of media that only increases exposure for your event?” he said. “If you’re trying to make these the most watched Games in the history of the world, why would you take the people responsible for that history and say, ‘Hey, you can’t do that, you can’t share?’ Limiting it seems so stupid.”
The rules are designed in part to discourage athletes from providing information that might otherwise be reported by broadcast partners or other media outlets. American swimmer Ricky Berens said he understands media contracts and business deals, but that he and teammates he spoke with in training camp see the guidelines as a hassle more than anything else.
For many athletes in sports such as swimming and track and field — which gain worldwide attention for a couple of weeks every four years, but otherwise remain largely under the radar — active social media use is a key method for building followings and boosting the marketing potential that plays an important role in funding their careers.
“I think the main reason it’s frustrating for us as Olympic athletes is that this is our biggest stage,” Berens told Mashable. “Twitter and social media are how we can get our word out, and fans kind of want to see what things look like from behind the scenes. TV portrays things the way it wants to, and we can give a lot more that that.”
Just how strictly the guidelines will be interpreted and enforced, however, remains to be seen. Congratulating a teammate via Twitter immediately following a great race while mentioning some details of a stellar performance, for example, could be be interpreted as either a first-person post or overstepping the boundaries of reporting.
Alex Huot, the IOC’s social media head, told Mashable via email that the main change to regulations this year is asking athletes to get the permission of peers before posting photos of them online — “something we added to protect the special nature of the Olympic Village.” He also said the IOC — which has launched an Olympic Athletes’s Hub and other social media initiatives in recent months — won’t actively monitor or track athletes’ social media posts to seek out transgressions.
“Should there be a breach of the guidelines detected, it would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis and would be up to the relevant National Olympic Committee to contact the athlete, have the post/tweet/blog in question removed or altered, and then to determine whether or not any further action is necessary,” Huot wrote.
But it’s not just young Olympians who find the rules — however vague actual enforcement may end up — to be only a partial adaptation to a changing sports media landscape.
Ato Boldon, a four-time sprinting medalist for Trinidad and Tobago current track and field analyst for NBC, told Mashable recently that he too thinks the Games could benefit from experimenting with more digital freedom to give athletes an even bigger platform.
“Limiting what the they can tweet is kind of counterproductive, and I think the IOC needs to lighten up a bit on stuff like that,” he said.
Ultimately, however, the tension comes down to set of simultaneously intertwined and competing interests between athletes and sports and media bodies — one to which there will likely be no final resolution for some time as Twitter and other social platforms continue to expand in ubiquity and influence.
“The IOC and NBC are running their business and doing what they can do make their business as profitable as it can be,” said Berens, the swimmer. “As athletes, this is us running our business. They’re taking away from that, but it goes both ways.”
Would you like to see athletes have more social media freedom at the 2012 Olympics, or do you think the IOC’s rules are good as are? Share your opinion in the comments, and check out the official IOC guidelines below.