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LONDON 2012: THE SUMMER OLYMPICS

Trouble in 140 characters or fewer

Athletes' Twitter feeds are on OT. Most are benign, but some shape the Games.

August 04, 2012|David Wharton
  • United States Basketball attend the night session of Swimming on Day 7 of the London Olympics.
United States Basketball attend the night session of Swimming on Day 7 of… (Lars Baron / Getty Images )

LONDON — Several hours before a semifinal race this week, Michael Phelps alerted his fans that he planned to take a nap.

At roughly the same time, across town, basketball star LeBron James was visiting a sneaker shop. And, apparently, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt needed a shave.

"Just posted a photo," he said.

It seems that every moment of the 2012 London Olympics so far has been documented -- 140 characters at a time -- on Twitter.

The popular microblogging service has become more than just a forum for athletes and fans to share their thoughts. It is a part of the story at these Games.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, August 22, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Olympics: In the Aug. 4 London 2012 section, an article about social media and the Olympic Games said that triple jumper Voula Papachristou was dismissed from the Greek Olympic team after sending a racist tweet from London. Papachristou was in Greece when she wrote the tweet.

Over the last two weeks, a Greek triple jumper and a Swiss soccer player were sent home for posting tweets perceived as racist. Organizers blamed heavy use of social media -- all those cellphones and tablets clicking away -- for disrupting television coverage at a cycling event.

Disputes among athletes, broadcasters and journalists have vibrated across the tweetosphere, and police arrested a young man for allegedly using the service to harass a British athlete who performed poorly in diving.

None of this is particularly good news for an International Olympic Committee that would rather keep the focus on gold medals and world records.

"To be frank, it would be a little bit [pointless] if we said, 'No, these aren't the social media games,'" IOC spokesman Mark Adams acknowledged. "Because everyone has decided they are, anyway."

Twitter controversies are nothing new to the sports world. The NFL fined receiver Chad Johnson for tweeting during a 2010 exhibition game and NBA player Charlie Villanueva drew a reprimand in 2009 for sending a brief message from the locker room at halftime.

That same year, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban paid a $25,000 fine for criticizing an official online.

But nothing quite like this has happened at an Olympic Games before. Experts say it is indicative of a new generation that is at ease communicating through social media.

The trouble in London began even before the first competition, when track athlete Voula Papachristou of Greece commented on a news report about mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus back home in Athens.

"So many Africans in Greece at least West Nile mosquitoes will eat homemade food," she tweeted.

Had Papachristou been anywhere but London, her tweet might have gone unnoticed. But in the glare of the Olympics, it caught the attention of Greek team officials. Within days, the same thing happened with a questionable tweet from another athlete.

Swiss defender Michel Morganella reportedly lashed out after his team lost a close soccer game to South Korea. His tweet was retracted, but not before team leaders deemed it racist and dismissed him.

Other athletes took heed.

"You used to write an email that just went to one person," said Tim Morehouse, a U.S. fencer who has tweeted regularly. "You can get caught up in an emotional moment and write something ... you can get in trouble a lot faster."

Every American athlete had to attend a U.S. Olympic Committee seminar about tweeting, among other things, before heading to London.

"We absolutely encourage our athletes to participate in the online conversation," USOC spokesman Mark Jones said. "We just want them to be smart."

But athletes aren't the only ones struggling with social media at the Games.

Organizers blamed hundreds of thousands of fans -- sending tweets, texts and photos -- for jamming the GPS system used to keep track of cyclists during a road race.

Information stopped flowing to television commentators, who found themselves at a loss to describe the action. The IOC asked fans to stop tweeting unless it was urgent.

"For most people, that would only encourage them," said Karen North, director of USC's Annenberg Program on Online Communities. "It would cause them to tweet more."

Even Twitter stumbled into an Olympic-sized dispute, condemned for suspending the account of Guy Adams, a Los Angeles-based journalist working for a British newspaper.

Adams had been highly critical of NBC's coverage of the Games, urging followers to complain and providing the corporate email address for a highly ranked executive.

Twitter suspended Adams' account, saying he had violated a rule that prohibited tweeting personal information. The blogosphere did not buy that rationale, especially because Twitter had partnered with NBCUniversal to stream Olympics-related information.

The account was subsequently reinstated and Twitter's general counsel offered an apology, saying: "This behavior is not acceptable and undermines the trust our users have in us."

Now, as the London Olympics enter their second week, the rumblings over Twitter persist.

Fans are still talking about Hope Solo, the goalkeeper for the U.S. women's team, who fired off a string of tweets deriding television commentator and former national player Brandi Chastain. A group of athletes is accusing the IOC of censorship, saying that Olympic guidelines prevent the athletes from mentioning their sponsors in tweets.

As for the recent arrest, police were still investigating a 17-year-old who got into an online argument with British diver Tom Daley.

The dispute began when Daley and his partner faltered badly in the 10-meter synchronized event. Angry tweets were exchanged and authorities subsequently arrested the unidentified man for suspicion of malicious communications.

While IOC officials attempt to downplay the negative headlines, experts say that controversies are bound to arise when a relatively new technology bumps up against a tradition-bound sporting event.

"There have been a litany of faux pas," said Irving Rein, a professor of communication studies at Northwestern University. "Is it a learning curve? It is."

--

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

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