As the 2012 Summer Olympics approach, the International Olympic Committee is taking a huge step in loosening its restrictions on social media usage for athletes and the volunteers helping to put the events together.
"Allowing the athletes to use social media is a win/win situation," says Sidney Eve Matrix, associate professor in the Department of Media and Film at Queen's University. "Not only does it get everyone excited about the Olympics, but it also drives spectatorship and fandom."
The social media controls have been in place since 2000, when security concerns, privacy of athletes and the need to protect copyright were cited as reasons to crack down on the possibility of non-sanctioned communications. Sponsors pay a huge amount to secure the broadcast rights to the Games.
The IOC's decade-long hesitancy to allow those involved in the Games to communicate with fans and otherwise publish Olympics-related material online is weakening. Platforms like Facebook, Google+ and others are seeing a loosening of the rules similar to what happened around personal athlete blogs, which have been allowed since 2010.
Volunteers for the Games were previously prevented from using any social media in regards to the Olympics. However, this year the IOC has decided to relax some of these rules for the 70,000 volunteers involved.
According to the IOC 2012 guidelines, volunteers and athletes are allowed to use social media websites like Twitter and Facebook. However, any comments or postings must be in a "first-person, diary-type format" and not come close to emulating the "role of a journalist" by commenting on separate events.
In any of their postings, they must also avoid mentioning:
- Details of their specific location,
- Media of backstage areas
- Breaking news
- Information about participants
- Detailed online discussions
In addition, they cannot report on any "accredited persons, or disclose any information which is confidential or private in relation to any other person or organization," limiting the information to personal, non-specific details only.
In places where broadcast rights have not been sold, the IOC will also provide live coverage through its official Youtube channel for free, accessible on smartphones and other online-capable devices.
Facebook and other platforms introduce dedicated portals
As a result of the changes to the social media rules, Facebook announced the creation of a community portal in June to highlight the "athletes, national teams and individual sports, with broadcasters and sponsors" involved in the Olympics.
“These Olympics, every story has the potential to be heard," said Joanna Shields, vice-president and managing director at Facebook. "On Facebook, all athletes can have an audience, and every fan can track how their heroes are doing, support them, encourage them, and share their stories with the world."
Even so, the IOC is still barring Facebook from allowing advertising on any Olympics-related pages. In addition, the IOC has launched Olympic partnerships with other prominent social media platforms, including Google+, Twitter and Foursquare.
Personal photographs can posted to these sites, but cannot be commercially distributed elsewhere. A caveat to this is that any pictures taken in the Olympic Village must be vetted first by those pictured.
Videos can be shot but cannot be posted online or elsewhere in any form. Once in the stadium, only official sponsors are allowed to take video and still shots.
Regardless of the limitations, inside perspectives on the Games from athletes and volunteers provided through social media could help increase fan engagement.
"It also is really good for the athletes themselves to demonstrate what it takes to be a world class Canadian athlete," says Matrix. "What kinds of people are behind these medals and these teams? They will serve as models and mentors for our next generation if they can show us how to use [social media] responsibly."
However, a fear of the pitfalls posed by accidentally violating these rules has discouraged some athletes from using social media at all during the Games, as any mistake could mean the end for them as far as the IOC is concerned.
Athletes like Sarah Stevenson and Rebecca Adlington, both avid twitter users, have decided to severely cut down on posting activity while participating in the Games.
Social media engagement a bulwark against online impotence
The IOC continues to be ferociously protective of its copyright online, despite its greater freedom it affords to its athletes. In May, Twitter suspended the account of Space Hijackers, an anti-capitalism protest group, at the request of Olympic organizers due to fears that the group's use of an altered London 2012 logo might imply an association with the Games.
“We were surprised that at the reaction of Twitter and the speed with which the account has been suspended," said a spokesman for Space Hijackers. "Twitter portrays itself as a hero of free speech especially during events such as the Arab Spring.
"And yet, when a big corporate organization gets in touch about a logo – which is clearly not tied to the official Olympics Twitter account, Twitter sides with the corporate."
As social media and technology become common, the prevalence of independent content is leading experts to predict that the lack of fan engagement by the IOC may serve to render its strong-arm attempts at control impotent in the future.
In 2009, when the IOC was reconsidering the ban on all social media that it had enacted in 2000, Reuters editor-in-chief David Schelsinger emphasized the burgeoning role of social media in today's culture to the IOC Press Commission.
The broadcast 'gatekeeper' system was outdated, he said, explaining that social media, direct connections to athletes and rapid upload of information would degrade the value of existing revenue streams unless something changed.
"The old means of control don’t work," said Schelsinger. "The old categories don’t work. The old ways of thinking won’t work. We all need to come to terms with that."
Shortly afterwards, at the 2010 Vancouver Games, the IOC allowed athlete blogs for the first time. The guidelines from that year acknowledged that "blogging, in accordance with these guidelines, [is] a legitimate form of personal expression and not [a] form of journalism."
However, these blogs were prevented from using sound, video, official pictures, interviews, news or Olympic symbology. The word 'Olympic' could be used if it was not connected with a third party.
Matrix sees the introduction of blogs and now social media as a welcome change for the future of fan engagement at the Olympics.
"For their individual brands, and the brands of the team, it's really important for them to have authenticity," she says. "It personalizes and humanizes them; it's more interesting that way."