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.

Olympic gold medal runner Sanya Richards-Ross said: “I’ve been very fortunate to do very well around the Olympics, but so many of my peers struggle in the sport, and I think it’s unjust that they’re not being considered, that athletes are not part of the conversation.”

In response, the IOC remained steadfast in its support of the current rules and has argued that the month-long restrictions during the blackout are a proportionate way to achieve the objective of protecting the rights of official Olympic sponsors who together have contributed more than £1 billion to help fund the cost of hosting London 2012.

In an attempt to offset the impact of these restrictions, personal sponsors of Olympic athletes have had no option but to promote their relationships before and after the blackout.

Hugh Cafferky, director of Silver Hatch Sports, which represent a number of Olympic athletes including bronze medal-winning boxer Paddy Barnes, said, “We advised sponsors of our athletes not to be reliant on interacting with them using social media during London 2012. As a result, their main focus is on pre- and post-Olympic opportunities. The real fun will happen post-London 2012 for sponsors of those Irish athletes that have done something special and have a story to tell.”

When the blackout ends later today, expect the personal sponsors of successful athletes such as gold medallist Katie Taylor to engage in high-profile campaigns that promote their role in supporting their athletes.

At London 2012, the IOC has learned that the unique nature of social media means that it is practically impossible to control its use by athletes.

However, such is the importance of official Olympic sponsors to funding the Olympic Games, it is unlikely that the IOC will make any significant changes to the existing rules ahead of Rio 2016.

Chris Connolly is a solicitor in the Sports Law Unit of A&L Goodbody

Brnd new world: Sponsorship Perks


THE WORLD’S fastest man, Usain Bolt, is expected to pick up sponsorship deals worth about €50 million. In between sprinting and pulling his infamous pose, the prolific tweeter could be seen hydrating with a Gatorade or two.

Jamaican teammate Yohan Blake may be given a time-out by the IOC for wearing a $500,000 Richard Mille wristwatch during the games. Michael Phelps, the Games’ most decorated man, may be seen devouring 12” Subways as part of his 12,000-calorie day diet.

Other Stateside athletes predicted to win big in the endorsement race include Gabby Douglas (aka “The Flying Squirrel”), who is expected to make $10 million in the next five years. Jessica Ennis, Team GB’s Olympic golden girl, is expected to be inundated with offers adding to the brands already behind her such as Jaguar and Aviva.

Nike, sponsors of Mo Farah, were quick to capitalise on the distance runner’s success and in an ambush marketing campaign, which slyly coincided with the London games.

John Joe Nevin ought to consider hanging up his gloves before using his brand new Blackberry or iPhone, if either brand take him up on his tweet request for sponsorship.

There is some good news for Katie Taylor, too. She can relive her gold medal victory over and over again on her complimentary Sky box, while having a long conversation with the man upstairs (Peter Taylor) – Digicel will pick up the tab.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.