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Not just a spectator sport

These Summer Games will be the biggest social media event ever. Can fans get a handle on it all?

By Ethan Gilsdorf
Globe Correspondent / July 28, 2012
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Welcome to the “Socialympics.’’

Thanks to the soaring popularity of social media and hand-held devices, audiences around the world will have the opportunity to follow the Games more comprehensively, and obsessively, than ever before.

To stay on top of the deeds, and perhaps misdeeds, of your favorite athletes, you used to tune into television, period. Now, “following” coverage of the Games of the XXX Olympiad has taken on a new and almost science-fictional meaning since the folksy days of watching ABC’s Jim McKay. Not only can you watch unprecedented hours of sports action on TV and the Internet (NBC alone will stream video of all 302 events), but you can view the Games on multiple devices from virtually anywhere.

By means of laptops, smartphones, and tablets, you can download video footage, photos, and text comments — and not just content from “official” sources. Audiences will be able to receive what experts believe will be a record-setting tsunami of digital feeds from spectators, commentators, and the competitors themselves, routed to social media sources such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, foursquare, YouTube, Tumblr, and Google+.

Watching the Games will no longer be only a spectator sport.

“We are at a dawn of a new age of sharing and connecting and London 2012 will ignite the first conversational Olympic Games (between athletes and fans) thanks to social media platforms and technology,” wrote Alex Huot, head of social media for the International Olympic Committee, or IOC, in an e-mail from London. “The size, scale, and sheer number of people using social media these days are the biggest differences between then and now.” By comparison, the 2008 Beijing Games seem mired in a dark age.

While these Olympics are not the first where athletes have used social media — that trend began to take off at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics — Huot said London marks the first time the IOC has not only joined the conversation with the athletes, but “created a hybrid social network for them.”

If you’re an Olympics junkie, especially eager for news about your favorite New England runner, rower, or mountain biker, these technologies promise unprecedented knowledge of athletes’ performances, as well as details of their training, hopes, and personal lives — all the thrills and agonies of being an Olympian.

“This is my first Olympic games and I am looking forward to sharing this with my fans,” said Kayla Harrison, a judo competitor from Wakefield. Harrison plans to post on Twitter about “fun” and “inspirational stuff,” as well as details of her training and her state of mind. “I’m all about the tweeting.”

These seismic shifts reflect the fact that social media use has exploded. Since the Beijing Games, the number of Facebook users has risen from about 100 million to about 900 million, and Twitter users number about 150 million, up from around 6 million. Use of smartphones and tablet computers like the iPad has soared from four years ago.

Traditional TV will still draw 4 billion viewers worldwide, research firm eMarketer predicts, but 1 billion will watch events, get updates, and check results on digital devices, consuming content in sprints of coverage, rather than marathon-size viewing binges.

“People used to take days off from work in the summer to watch the Olympics,” said Kenneth C. Wisnefski, founder and chief executive of Internet marketing company Webimax. No longer. Wisnefski expects to see a drop in midday TV ratings because people will check their Facebook and Twitter accounts for real-time updates while on the go.

But the intimate and immediate nature of social media presents new challenges for Olympic organizers and government officials anxious to protect the image of the Games and lucrative contracts with sponsors.

“The Olympic athlete’s motto used to be ‘What happens in the village stays in the village.’ This may have worked in the past but is no longer possible with social media and smartphones,” wrote William J. Ward, social media professor at Syracuse University, in an e-mail.

The fallout from disclosures of misbehavior could have harsh consequences. “Olympic athletes are just one 140-character tweet or photo share away from tarnishing the Olympic image,” Ward notes, “and losing millions in future sponsorships and endorsements for themselves or other athletes.”

Athletes will need to mind their P’s, Q’s, and F-bombs.

To head off potential problems, the IOC has issued strict guidelines for how athletes can and cannot use social media. “[P]ostings, blogs or tweets must be in a first-person, diary-type format” and must “conform to the Olympic spirit and fundamental principles of Olympism” — i.e., in good taste, no vulgarity. Athletes cannot broadcast any video from the residential area. Participants and other accredited persons are barred from posting video or audio of any events at the Olympic venues, nor can they offer play-by-play accounts of competition or “comment on the activities of other participants.’’

All members of the US team have gone through some “media training and [been] given basic guidelines on what we can say publicly,” wrote Sarah Groff, an Olympic triathlete from Hanover, N.H., in an e-mail. Mark Jones, a US Olympic Committee spokesman, said that there was no formal system for policing social media but that does not mean athletes will get a free ride. Jones noted that if an athlete tweeted or posted something inappropriate, officials would be likely to see it and remind the athlete of the guidelines. Participants found breaking the rules can be asked to take down their material or, in a worst-case scenario, be kicked off the team.

Already, some athletes have crossed lines. Greek triple jumper Paraskevi Papahristou, who was considered a medal contender, was pulled from her Olympic team Wednesday after posting a comment on Twitter that was disparaging of African immigrants in Greece. And two Australian swimmers, Nick D’Arcy and Kenrick Monk, who posed with guns at a California gun shop and posted photos on Facebook, were told by the Australian Olympic Committee to depart London once their events end and are banned from using social media for a month, including during the Games.

Despite the restrictions on social media, there appears to be plenty of room for communication. Take this recent tweet from triathlete Groff: “Signs that I’m turning into a real pro: I’m unfazed by both a bike problem and a young gun blowing by me on my shakeout run.”

To make it easy to follow your favorite competitor, the IOC has launched the Olympic Athletes’ Hub, a directory of certified Olympians on social media ( The IOC also curates a dedicated Olympics channel on YouTube, a Twitter account, a Facebook page and a foursquare account. NBC has partnered with Twitter and Facebook to encourage a frenzy of cross-platform tweeting and posting. Twitter and NBC Sports will also gather what they deem the best Olympics-related tweets.

Or, simply latch onto your favorite athlete’s Twitter handle and enjoy the ride.

“I’ll be posting about the entire Olympic experience, from the food to the athletes village to the mountain bike course,” wrote Lea Davison, a mountain biker from Jericho, Vt., in an e-mail, shortly before leaving for London. “My tweets normally include a lot of food. I generally try to tweet once a day but it may increase during the Olympics since it’s such a unique and exciting experience. I’ll probably want to tweet every time I see the Olympic rings, but I’ll have to hold back my excitement.”

Some athletes will also be blogging and posting to their Facebook fan pages. Other athletes are innovating ways to connect with their fans. Three-time Olympic fencer Tim Morehouse, a New York native and Brandeis University grad, is working with Boston start-up Burst to broadcast video-shares of his behind-the-scenes experiences. Local commentators such as Carolyn Manno of Comcast SportsNet Central, Anne Allred of WHDH-TV (Channel 7), and Chad Finn of the Globe will be adding their bons mots too.

Above and beyond the chatter and trash talk, social media can affect athletes and their performances. Tweets and status updates are becoming a media for inspiration. “People say ‘Good luck.’ ‘We’re thinking of you.’ ‘Go get ’em,’ ’’ said Harrison, the judo competitor. “It’s nice to hear that from people, who are supporting you — right before a fight.”

Ethan Gilsdorf, author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks,’’ can be reached at www Follow him on Twitter @ethanfreak.

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