Social Media & the Olympics

The 2012 London Olympics was officially called the “Sustainable Olympics” and the “Olympics for Everyone“. Unofficially, the 2012 London Olympics was referred to as the “Social Media Olympics” or the “Twitter Olympics”. Social media clearly played a prominent role at the Olympics in London for organizers, journalists, athletes, and fans alike.

The Olympics have historically been associated with new technology. Not so long ago, the Beijing 2008 Olympics were officially called the High-Tech Olympics.  Chris Finlay and I have argued that one of the broad, over-arching Olympic narratives has been about modernity and technology. This was especially important for China in 2008, but terms like “state of the art” were used to describe much of the London Games as well.  The role of media is also central to the narrative of connecting the Games to the world:

The XIV Olympiad was the greatest sporting festival that had ever been staged and the progress and results of the 136 Olympic events were of interest to millions of people throughout the world. As only a small number out of those millions was able to be at the Games in person, radio had to provide the rest with the nearest equivalent to front row seats whenever and wherever anything exciting was happening. Thus, the listeners of five continents found themselves at Wembley as the competitors of 59 nations marched into the Stadium in brilliant sunshine on the opening day and, thereafter, as record after record was broken, they were able to share in the suspense of each event while it was actually taking place. In fact, they were often better off than the spectator, because he could be in only one place at once, whereas the radio listener could visit half-a-dozen venues in as many minutes and could travel from Empress Hall to Torbay at the turn of a single knob. (The Organising Committee for the XIV Olympiad, 1948, p.114)

This excerpt is from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) report on the London 1948 Olympic Games. While the Official IOC Report of London 2012 Olympiad is currently being written, this passage gives us an idea of what the 2012 report may sound like. Like never before, the media at the London 1948 Olympics provided people all over the world with front row passes to the games.

Also in ways different than ever before, people all over the world could use media to connect with the London 2012 Games. This time, media offered not just for front row passes, but back stage access as well. Part of the allure of social media for the Olympic audience was the intimacy and authenticity it offered. Social media allowed athletes to speak for themselves (perhaps vetted by a publicist) and directly to an audience. It was the personal accounts that garnered much attention.

Many called the changes historic, with “social media changing Olympic reporting” and bringing “the audience closer to the Olympics.” “Never before have fans had such direct access to their sporting heroes”.

Social media, however, are the not first to change the nature of Olympic reporting.

The London 1948 Games also catalyzed shifts in the relationship between media and the Olympics. Rather than just publishing the official accounts from the Olympic Organising Committee, increasingly various institutions and organizations reported on the Games themselves.

The modern trend of publicity produced demands for news of the Olympic Games from a wide field, including government departments, radio companies, sporting organisations and schools, as well as from the Olympic Committees throughout the world. The policy of encouraging inquirers to write personal stories rather than rely on printed material led to hundreds of interviews having to be granted, and, six months before the Games, apart from home inquiries, visits had been paid by journalists and correspondents from over fifty countries. The resultant publicity was most gratifying. (The Organising Committee for the XIV Olympiad, 1948, p. 106)

The report reveals the tension between the goals of the 1948 Organizers to maintain control over Olympic discourse and coverage, and the goal to gain attention and publicity for the Games.

We saw a similar tension between control and publicity emerge with social media during the 2012 Games. While the IOC actively encouraged and supported athletes using social media at the Games, “any such postings, blogs or tweets must be in a first-person, diary-type format and should not be in the role of a journalist.” Further, the IOC Guidelines articulated that athletes were not allowed to promote any brand, product or service on social media, so as not to compete with the official Olympic sponsors. The IOC wanted the publicity that social media could bring to the Games, but wanted to control the Olympic brand.

In addition to the heightened presence of social media at the London Olympics, we also saw heightened media coverage of social media as objects to report. In the evening during the Games, Ryan Seacrest reported statistics about how many tweets or status updates included various athletes or celebrities. What or who generated the most tweets today? Who had the greatest increase in followers during the Games? Who generated the most tweets per second?

But Seacrest and others didn’t report on what these numbers mean. What implications does it have that the Spice Girls generated the most mentions per minute? Why was it a decade-old pop group and not one of the world record-breaking moments? What does it say about media, spectacle, and sport that a pop music band generated such tweets at the Olympics? Lacking in the discourse was a critical interpretation of how the numbers were generated and what the numbers mean.

Of course, people like Usain Bolt and McKayla Maroney are not only award-winning Olympians, but social media stars as well. Bolt not only generated the most mentions on Twitter of any Olympic athlete during the Games, but of course broke his World Record to again earn the title “fastest man on earth”.  Maroney won gold and silver medals in Gymnastics at the 2012 Games, but thanks to social media, has also become a popular internet meme.

But fundamentally what do social media mean for the Olympics?

The rise of social media for amateur and professional athletes alike provides an important tool through which to develop their personal brand. Not only does it allow them to promote themselves and their sport, but it allows them to quantify their fan base. Metrics such as number of followers on Twitter are used to understand popularity and influence of athletes from which sponsorships can be attained.  Even if they don’t use social media to promote products and brands, the metrics associated with social media can still be powerful. Social media becomes an important tool for the commodification of fans and followers.

Social media also contribute to the Olympic narrative that the Games are meant to bring people together. The Olympic Charter places sport “at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Especially important for the London 2012 Games was the narrative of inclusivity. This was officially the Games for Everyone.

Social media perpetuated this discourse by not only providing another platform through which anyone to access the Games and get a front row experience, but also to interact and contribute to the Games by commenting, liking, and following, thus themselves becoming part of the discourse surrounding the Games as well.

This is not a new narrative. The modern Olympics have always been closely connected to trends in communication technology. Not only do media demonstrate technological modernity, but they are the primary means of connecting the audience with the Games. The prominence of social media in the London 2012 Games is only but the latest in a long evolution of the partnership between media and the Olympics.

Cross posted at the blog for the Center for Global Communication Studies.

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