A risqu photo. A misguided boast. A sponsor ambush. In what's being called the Social Media Olympics, it's highly likely an athlete will make digital waves and end up in hot water during the London Games, which begin next week.
In the four years since the Beijing Summer Games, Twitter has grown from 6 million users to more than 140 million. That's 400 million tweets sent each day. There were more tweets about the Olympics on a single day last week than during the entire 2008 Games.
What are the odds that some athlete steps out of bounds in a tweet or a Facebook post?
"It's damn near impossible not to happen," said Dan Durbin, the director of the Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media & Society at the University of Southern California, which hosted a three-day conference on the Olympics this year.
"There's hundreds of active and engaged and competitive athletes in very close quarters to each other, and a huge number of them will be tweeting. It's almost inevitable that some sort of controversy will come out. It would be surprising if it didn't."
With more than 10,000 athletes competing, the International Olympic Committee has the delicate balancing act of allowing athletes freedom of speech while protecting the image of the Games and its corporate sponsors, who spend millions for the right to stamp the rings on their products.
Under IOC rules, athletes are encouraged to blog and tweet "provided that it is not for commercial and/or advertising purposes" so they do not conflict with official Olympic sponsors and broadcasters. Social media posts should be written in a "first-person, diary-type format." Those who infringe on the policy could lose their credential and receive other unspecified sanctions.
"If you're Visa or Coca-Cola or Procter & Gamble, you spend money on the Olympics to get value from the association with the Olympic rings," said Scott Minto, the director of the sports MBA program at San Diego State University. To protect that value, Minto said the IOC's social media policy was very restrictive. "They're not messing around," he said.
Many athletes view Twitter as a way to connect with fans. As U.S. gymnast Jonathan Horton, a 2008 Olympic silver medalist, put it, he wants to "build my brand and get my story out there."
Diana Lopez, an American who won a bronze medal in taekwondo for the USA in 2008, initially hesitated about engaging followers on Twitter.
"I didn't really understand why people would be so interested in what we did or do," said Lopez, whose brothers Steven and Mark also won medals in Beijing. "I think it's boring. To someone else it might be an inspiration."
Lopez said before she went to her first Games four years ago, she'd question her brother for details about his Olympic experience. "I would always ask my brother (and two-time Olympic gold medalist) Steven. What is it like? What did you eat? Who did you meet today?" she said. "I know he'd get annoyed when I asked him, but I love to hear about it. I want all of my fans out there to know how I'm feeling or what I'm doing every day in London."
Real time, unexpected
U.S. athletes have already taken to Twitter to share their Olympic joys and frustrations. After hurdler Kerron Clement tweeted about his bus getting lost from the airport to the athletes village and swimmer Michael Phelps questioned why his country's flag couldn't be pictured on his swim cap, news reporters followed up on those complaints.
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