The summer Olympics is one of the world's most celebrated traditions. Every four years, we've tuned in to watch incredible competitions, feats of strength and durability, comebacks and breakthroughs, and over time, we've also gotten to know our athletes better and better.
By 2012, the Olympians' story lines play a central role in watching and participating in the Olympics. We love to cheer on our native countries, but we also love to cheer on the athletes we identify with. The ones with unlikely upbringings, the ones who overcame incredible odds and trained hundreds upon hundreds of hours just for a chance to represent their country doing what they do best.
We all love the Olympics, but we haven't always had close contact with these athletes we admire. The advent of social media has changed that: We can now reach out to those seemingly unattainable individuals, and we can follow their narratives as they tell them.
Twitter, specifically, has proven to be a powerful narrative tool. Twitter has toppled governments and has exposed crimes and criminals. It has also taught us normal folk that celebrities and brands can be people too. It has brought us closer to the news we need and the people we love. It also continues to be an unbiased platform for any kind of speech from anyone, anywhere.
However, the International Olympic Committee, or IOC, doesn't see it that way. They don't see Twitter as a story-enhancer; they see it as a marketing tool and way to make money for brands. They see Olympic athletes not just as athletes, but as labeled properties. And in this way, the IOC must also protect their own sponsorships.
That's exactly the reason behind Rule 40, a rule that every Olympian must follow, which says that athletes cannot mention their sponsors in social media unless they also mention the sponsors of the IOC. In other words, tweet, and you might be gone.
"Athletes can't tweet about anything if it isn't an Olympic sponsor," explained Robert Thompson, professor of TV and pop culture at Syracuse University. "It's not an issue of free speech; it's about following rules that an organization must have. But it goes back to the networks and whether they should be doing these live feeds or not. If you want to play their games, you have to play by their rules."
Andrew Brandt, the former VP for the Green Bay Packers and a current NFL business analyst on ESPN, explains that the freedom-crunching rule was created because of competing interests.
"Individual sponsors want to get their name out there, the athletes want to get their name out, and the IOC want to protect their sponsors and make a ton of money," Brandt said. "This was all created long before this thing called Twitter. ... There's gotta be a way to protect these individual sponsorships from the IOC while being able to give athletes their freedom of speech."
Jason Falls, the CEO of SocialMediaExplorer.com, said that the IOC is fighting a losing battle against the restriction of speech.
"Social media implies that people are involved, and when there are people in the room, they're going to use their communication devices to send it out," Falls said. "At the Olympics, you don't just have athletes, but you have ticket holders ready to attend the event and distribute your information around the world."
The existence of Rule 40 tells says the IOC thinks that Twitter is solely a marketing tool, and not a tool for communication and storytelling. In this way, the athletes likely understand Twitter significantly more than the IOC members. Some experts believe that if the IOC isn't careful, a restrictive policy on social media speech could backfire on the IOC.
"I don't have any problem with the IOC's policy saying what it says or Rule 40 and what it says, but the IOC says without sponsors, there wouldn't be the games," Thompson said. "Well, there wouldn't be the games without athletes either. I think the IOC needs to tread very softly here."
Brandt believes this social media "freedom of speech" issue isn't going to go away; it's going to get bigger.
"Right now, athletes aren't allowed to tweet during, before or after the game," Brandt said. "Right now, they're trying to see: Does it affect competition? Does it affect Olympic sponsors that make tons of money? Again, Twitter didn't exist when this rule was passed, but the fact is people now watch these events with multiple screens. There are tweeting-per second-records broken all the time. Twitter is such a phenomenon that they're taking it in and then watching the games. You're seeing the infancy here in London; the next Olympics will be a whole new game."
So what happens if Rule 40 isn't repealed? Will we see athletes mobilize and revolt against the IOC just because they can't tweet what they want?
"Who knows," Thompson said. "By 2016, we might have the Olympics beamed directly to our cerebral cortexes."
Thompson believes that most of the tweets on Twitter "by any standards are pretty inane." He thinks a lot of the Twitter talk is "smoke and mirrors," yet he points out the existence of Twitter isn't taking away from anyone's ratings.
"This is extraordinary," Thompson said. "If we were in the midst of a revolution, we should've expected these [TV] ratings to go way way down. But they're not going down, they're going up. The old-school, dinosaur model of broadcasting the Olympics is doing better than it's ever been done before. But I think the Olympics is a little different than the Super Bowl or a basketball game -- you don't want to go back and watch those games after they're already done. Maybe it's like going back and watching 'Romeo & Juliet.' You know how it ends, but you want to go anyway to see it."
The general consensus between experts and viewers seems to be this: The IOC needs to address social media in a more realistic way, and it needs to figure out how individual and IOC sponsors can get along (as they have to, apparently).
Brandt believes that athletes shouldn't get in trouble in the future if they just want to share on Twitter, but they shouldn't test the IOC's rules, either.
"Just think before you tweet," Brandt said. "There are knukcleheads out there that will act on impulse, and impulse will get you in a lot of trouble. I think the future of Twitter and all of social media will be restrictions from leagues on expression that won't get into the whole First Amendment thing, but on a level of personal conduct that reflects you and the entire organization. This issue is not going away; it's only going to get bigger."
Luckily for the IOC, it seems that Twitter and TV can get along; most viewers report using the two platforms as companions, rather than competing programs. Now, all the IOC needs to do is coordinate the sponsorships, rather than quash them, to make the Olympics a much richer experience for everyone -- literally and figuratively.