The 2012 Summer Games, hosted by the good people of London, has already been dubbed the “First Social Media Games.” As we start the second week of the XXX Olympiad, the world has already seen what a huge impact social media has had on the games – and the numbers are staggering! Twitter has already reported that the opening ceremonies sparked 9.66 million mentions, topping the total number of Twitter posts during the entire 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. According to iProspect, a large British digital marketing agency, and Carat, a media agency, Twitter was by far the favorite social media site, accounting for 97% of all online conversations about the opening ceremony.
Social Media Goes for Gold in London
For those of us who are Twitter users, we know there are good and bad sides to this social media platform. For this year’s athletes, it is a unique way to communicate “directly” to their fans, families back home, and other athletes. “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,” says U.S. swimmer Ricky Berens in a recent Mashable article. “TV portrays things the way it wants to and we can give a lot more than that.”
The dark side of social media, however, can be downright mean and pressure-packed, as we have already seen during the first week of the games. After becoming the first African-American woman to win the individual all-around women’s gymnastics competition, America’s newest sweetheart, Gabby Douglas, became victim to social media bullies who made fun of her hair. When Aussie swimmer Emily Seebohm failed to take gold in the 100-meter backstroke final, she told reporters that she believed the pressure put on her via social media to win gold caused her to lose the race. “…Maybe I just started believing that I’d already won by the time I had swum…I just felt like I didn’t get off (social media) and get into my own mind,” said Seebohm.
For many of this year’s Olympic athletes (especially those with million dollar endorsement deals), not only is there pressure to walk away with a medal, but they must also abide by social media rules implemented by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) which says the only permissible tweets, blogs or social media posts must be a “first-person, diary type format” and may not provide competition results before they are aired. The rules are there to protect media entities covering the Games, who don’t want to be scooped by the athletes. The IOC has also dictated that tweets from athletes must conform to the Olympic spirit, be “dignified and in good taste, and not contain vulgar or obscene words or images.” Greek triple jumper Paraskevi Papahristou did not abide by this rule, and was promptly removed from the team after making a disparaging tweet about Africans in Greece.
Social Media and Athlete Sponsorships: Not a Pretty Picture
As if there wasn’t enough drama and policy surrounding this year’s Summer Games, the IOC has also activated ‘Rule 40’ which means that athletes are prohibited from naming sponsors (via social media or any advertising medium) other than the official Olympic sponsors at any time from the opening of the Olympic Village to closing ceremonies. The IOC’s sponsorship rule – in force to protect its 11 major backers such as Coca-Cola, Visa, and McDonalds – angered athletes who said it was vital to their careers and livelihood to be able to “namecheck” their sponsors.
For Swiss tennis star and Olympian Roger Federer, ‘Rule 40’ meant that he couldn’t mention his sponsor, Nike, on his Facebook page because Adidas is an official sponsor of the London Games. The day before the opening of the Olympic Village, Federer’s Facebook page featured a photo of 287 pairs of limited edition tennis shoes donated to him by Nike.
Many of this year’s Olympic athletes are very angry about the new strict corporate sponsorship rules. As has been widely reported during the games, dozens of track and field athletes have taken to Twitter (#WeDemandChange), Facebook and personal blogs to demand reform of the policy. Dawn Harper, 100m hurdler, even posted a photograph on Twitter of her mouth gagged with duct tape with ‘Rule 40’ written on it.
Unless you are a major sports star, like Roger Federer or one of the members of the Dream Team, the majority of U.S. athletes who train to compete at the Olympics rely heavily on sponsorships to fund participation at such a high level. (The Chinese athletes have the advantage of state funding). In her personal blog, Olympic sprinter Lauryn Williams states that, “it is not unknown for an Olympic athlete to win a medal and then return to living in a car.”
ESPN reporter Darren Rovell also recently argued, “The IOC argues Rule 40 protects the investment of those who sponsor the games. It does. It also shows no regard for the athletes.”
Only time will tell the full impact that social media platforms will have on this year’s Summer Games, as well as on athletes around the world. Will social media and mobile marketing make an even bigger splash in Rio 2016?
Until then, GO USA!
Catherine Seeds is the Vide President of Ketner Group, a PR and marketing communications agency headquartered in Austin, TX.