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.
Sporting events with global interest drive the most traffic to the social media site. A soccer match between Spain and Italy this month in the UEFA Euro 2012 final set a record volume of tweets for a sporting event. Users sent 15,358 tweets per second at its peak and 16.5 million tweets overall. This, for Spain's 4-0 blowout victory.
"A couple of things come with sports that you don't get elsewhere," said Omid Ashtari, Twitter's head of sports and entertainment. "The experience is in real time and the results are always unexpected, and that's what really drives on Twitter.
"There's an inherent passion inside of us being fans of sports from childhood, and that makes us more emotionally connected."
Twitter officials say they're confident the site can handle the deluge without an outage. However, if the site does go down, expect global panic attacks given the addictive hold this medium has on so many. In June, Twitter had its biggest outage of the year: about 70 minutes. The site blamed the problem on a "cascading bug."
'Share your vision'
U.S. hurdler Lolo Jones has perfected the art of Twitter chatter, building her base of 163,000 followers through humor and the occasional mention of NFL quarterback Tim Tebow. When Jones mentioned in May that she -- like Tebow -- was a virgin saving herself for marriage, the Twitterverse exploded. Even Tebow's New York Jets teammates tried to play matchmaker between the two athletes -- via Twitter, of course.
This summer, Ashtari met with U.S. athletes at a media summit. His advice: "Share your insider perspective. The whole world is watching, and 99.9% of us never get to go to the Olympics, let alone be an athlete. Share your vision. Share your passion.'"
Of course, sometimes there can be too much sharing. From this innocuous example of Twitter TMI from @ryanlochte: "Gotta shave for tomorrow the start of #OlympicTrials but can't shave my back help me out! Lol."
To the more headline-grabbing variety: Australian swimmer Stephanie Rice, who won three golds in Beijing, attracted such attention recently when she posted a picture of herself in a low-cut bikini. Two years earlier, the reaction was decidedly less enthusiastic after she posted an anti-gay slur that was followed by a tearful public apology.
By the time the London Games begin, every American athlete will have experienced the U.S. Olympic Committee's Ambassador Program, four hours of training in which they are briefed on expectations and etiquette, including the use of social media. The USOC doesn't have a formal social media policy, but it encourages athletes to be thoughtful with their decisions and cites cautionary tales.
At the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, U.S. snowboarder Scotty Lago earned a bronze medal on the halfpipe but was soon sent home when TMZ.com posted racy photos of Lago posing with his medal.
More recently, Australian swimmers Nick D'Arcy and Kenrick Monk posted photos of themselves on Facebook cradling pump-action shotguns and a pistol in a U.S. gun shop. The Australian Olympic Committee ordered them to remove the photos immediately. The swimmers have been banned from using social media during the London Games and will be sent home the day the swimming program finishes while their teammates can stay for the closing ceremony.
Ashtari reminds athletes that their 140 characters are being broadcast to the world when they tweet. "Whenever you tweet, imagine that you're standing in front of a room with hundreds of people. You're not just talking to your three best friends," he said.
The same advice applies for followers as well. British swimmer Rebecca Adlington, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, has been vocal about the abuse she has received about her appearance from some users on Twitter. "I'm insecure about the way I look and people's comments do hurt me," Adlington said in a tweet.
To out one such offender, she retweeted a cruel message that described her as a "whale" with a "shark fin nose." The Twitter account belonged to a 19-year-old college student. When he was contacted by The Daily Telegraph, he blamed one of his friends for writing it on a night out.
A British college student was jailed this year after posting racist tweets about soccer player Fabrice Muamba.
"Even if you have seven followers, if you say something controversial, people will pick up on it," Ashtari said. "Be very cognizant about what you put out into the world."
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