How tweet it is: Olympians allowed back to social media
LONDON 2012 was promoted as the first “social media Olympics”. However, a number of athletes caused controversy by using social media platforms to promote personal sponsorship to the annoyance of the International Olympic Committee.
High-profile incidents included some athletes promoting their personal sponsors using social media, and a co-ordinated Twitter campaign by US track and field athletes protesting about the restrictions on their commercial activity during London 2012. These raise important issues for the IOC, participating athletes and their personal sponsors ahead of the next Olympics at Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Prior to the start of London 2012, the IOC and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games hoped to utilise social media as a powerful tool to increase the global popularity of the Games.
To capitalise on this, the IOC rolled out a number of social media initiatives at London 2012 including a new website, the Olympic Athletes’ Hub, which integrates the verified Facebook and Twitter accounts of all Olympians.
A record 80,000 tweets per minute were posted during Usain Bolt’s 200m final victory, and the 9.66 million tweets sent during the opening ceremony of London 2012 were more than those sent during the whole of the Beijing 2008 games. In addition, athletes’ Twitter feeds featured frequently in broadcasters’ coverage of the Olympics.
However, the IOC recognised that social media can be used in ways that bring the Olympic Games and athletes into disrepute, and sought to prevent this by introducing the Social Media, Blogging and Internet Guidelines. These were binding on the 10,500 participating athletes and other accredited persons, including coaches and the 70,000 volunteers, during what has become known as the blackout period.
A main objective of the guidelines was to prevent athletes from using social media to promote a personal sponsor in a way that might lead people to believe it is an official sponsor of London 2012. This is a form of ambush marketing which devalues the rights of official Olympic sponsors.
The guidelines tie in social media with the long-standing Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter, which prevents any athlete or coach from engaging in any promotional activity during the Olympic Games without IOC consent.
As the past few weeks have shown, there are strict penalties for breaching the guidelines, with Greek triple jumper Paraskevi Papachristou and Swiss footballer Michel Morganella both being withdrawn from their respective teams for posting tweets that were deemed racist.
In addition to revoking an athlete’s accreditation, the IOC has the right to demand that social media content be immediately taken down and can take legal action seeking damages. This is not to mention the possibility of athletes being taken to court by third parties for actions such as defamation, breach of privacy or infringement of intellectual property rights.
During London 2012, there were several examples of athletes breaching the rules by using social media to promote their personal sponsors. These included British athletes Laura Robson and Jack Butland being forced to remove tweets about their headphones, and US 1,500m athlete Leo Manzano being forced to remove from his Facebook page a photograph and positive comments about his shoes.
However, in a show of defiance a number of US track and field athletes engaged in an extraordinary campaign on Twitter to protest against these restrictions. This included posting tweets criticising the rules using the hashtags #Rule40 and #wedemandchange.
These athletes believe that during the Olympic Games they should be able to promote their personal sponsors who helped them prepare between Olympic cycles when athletes receive much less coverage and as a result are more reliant on their support.