Where's the safety net for tweeting Olympians?

The IOC is trying to impose social media rules on Olympic athletes and not just for fear of more Twitter gaffes, Tom Parry writes. But the medium is now so pervasive enforcement will be a problem.

Social media is so pervasive now, gaffes or misunderstandings are inevitable

Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou had a hard landing after her jokey tweet was deemed racist by Greece's Olympic committee and she was tossed from the team. (Matt Dunham / Associated Press)

There's no doubt that in an era when just about everyone is on Facebook or Twitter, social media will be bigger than ever at these Olympics — and not just because of the high-profile, ultra-magnified Twitter gaffes that are occasionally slipping out.

Superstar athletes like Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and American swimmer Michael Phelps are followed online by millions of fans.

Olympic organizers, national teams and individual athletes — famous and not so famous — will all be offering updates, insights and news of thrilling victories and bitter defeats throughout the Games.

"This will be very different because of social media," says triathlete Simon Whitfield, Canada's flag-bearer and avid Twitter user.

"It puts more pressure actually because you connect with more people. So you see a lot more of those messages of support and you see a lot more of those messages of 'Go bring home the gold'.

"So, it will change it for some athletes I'm sure."

Social media is also putting more pressure on athletes because it is placing them under much closer scrutiny, as Greek triple-jumper Voula Papachristou found that out the hard way.

This week, she became the first athlete be thrown out of an Olympics for an offensive tweet and saw her name and face splattered all over the international media. 

Papachristou was expelled from the Greek team after she posted what she felt was a joke, which was deemed racist. (Her Twitter account also contained several retweets and postings promoting Greece's ultra-right Golden Dawn party.)

Commenting on mosquitoes in Athens that might be carrying the West Nile virus, she wrote "with so many Africans in Greece at least the West Nile mosquitoes will eat homemade food."

Papachristou apologized. But the damage was done. Being kicked out of a competition athletes work all their lives for was a devastating blow.

Afterward, Papachristou said she was "bitter and upset." But her experience showed the risks athletes — or anyone in the spotlight — run whenever they take to social media.

IOC rules

For most of the athletes here in London, tweeting hasn't been a big issue. Their postings have been about more routine subjects.

Though American hurdler Kerron Clement earned the wrath of the British media last week for moaning, as the Daily Mail put it, about the long bus ride in from Heathrow. Clement tweeted: "Um, so we've been lost on the road for 4hrs. Not a good first impression London."

British cyclist and Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins took to Twitter to joke about Great Britain's team uniforms and the fashion designer who put them together, Stella McCartney, daughter of Sir Paul, the former Beatle.

Designer Stella McCartney, middle, shows off her British Olympic team designs. The models are triple jumper Phillips Idowu and heptathlete Jessica Ennis. (Matt Dunham / Associated Press)

"Just arrived at the Olympics," he wrote. "Got all me kit. Think Stella was a bit Lucy in the Sky when she knocked this one up." For its part, the International Olympic Committee is trying to gain some level of control over the free-for-all word of the internet. At these games, the IOC has taken an active strategy when it comes to social media, partnering with Facebook and Twitter to create what it calls an "athletes' hub" where fans can register and follow their favourite Olympians.

The IOC is encouraging athletes to blog, tweet and post updates to their Facebook pages. But there are rules.

Ever protective of its international broadcast rights, which it sells at enormous prices, the IOC has forbidden athletes from posting video from inside Olympic facilities, though still photos are allowed.

IOC guidelines also demand that athletes' postings should read like a personal diary. They should not report on the results of any competition or comment on other competitors.

Everything posted online, the guidelines state, should be "dignified and in good taste, and not contain vulgar or obscene words or images."

Rule breakers

But what happens if an athlete — rather than posting something racist or offensive — merely posts a video of the Olympic opening ceremony. What could the IOC do?

Mark Adams, an IOC spokesman, says there are no official sanctions and he won't speculate on what might happen if any athlete were to break the rules.

"When and if we're presented with an egregious breach of social media guidelines and our intellectual property, then we'll look at it," he says.

Athletes like Canada's Simon Whitfield seem ready to test the IOC's boundaries.

"I guess we can't tweet video," he says. "So, I'll just tweet away. I don't know. I'll just have fun with it and if my hand gets slapped, we'll see what happens."

A spokesman for the Canadian Olympic Committee says it wants Canadian athletes to share their stories but requires that they comply with IOC social media guidelines.

Trying to track everything athletes post won't be easy. Graeme Menzies, who was director of online communication and social media at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, knows that well

Wilder at Vancouver Games

"Vancouver was a little more Wild West," he says.

Since then, he notes, the IOC has moved aggressively to control and occupy the social media space.

Menzies says there's nothing wrong with Olympic organizers becoming more involved in the online world.

What bothers him is when the media calls London the first social media Games. That title, he says, should belong to Vancouver 2010.

"I can't really see anything new," he says. "You know, there will be lots of people tweeting. That's not new. There are lots of people on Facebook. That's not new. It's just lots."

Millions more people, of course, have joined Facebook and Twitter since 2010 and social media has become ever more pervasive, to the point where some call it a distraction.

Amid all this talk of tweeting, blogging and online posts, the head of London 2012 recently reminded British athletes that the Games are about sport.

Sebastian Coe, himself a two-time Olympic champion runner, says athletes need to stay focused on winning, not tweeting. "I think it is a great way of communicating," says Coe, who has a Twitter account.

"But from a personal perspective, when I was an athlete, I just wanted complete and total focus. I knew it was my time and they don't come around that often. If I was focusing on trying to defend a title, I wouldn't be reading Twitter."