For the first time in the history of the Olympic Games, athletes were given a voice beyond their NBC highlights. They had the opportunity to connect with fans and join in the conversation surrounding one of the highest anticipated and most-watched events occurring just every four years. At the time of the 2008 Olympic Games, Facebook had only 100 million members and has since risen to 900 million. The new environment provided by social media for the 2012 Games was mostly uncharted territory, essentially turning athletes into their own spokespeople.
While the 2012 Olympic Games were viewed by 219.4 million people tuning in at some point during the 17-day broadcast, even more astounding is that the coverage was considered more “social” than the 2012 Super Bowl, 2012 Grammys, 2012 Oscars, 2012 Golden Globes and all seven games of the 2011 World Series combined, according to social media research company, Bluefin Labs.
More than 100 million Olympic-related posts or comments occurred on Facebook during the Games, and more than 150 million Olympic-related tweets went out.
During this time, athlete fan counts on Facebook and Twitter soared, placing Olympians in the social media spotlight that had not been as prevalent just four years earlier. Athletes like gold medalist Gabby Douglas went from 14,358 Facebook fans on July 27 to over 540,000 fans by the end of the Games.
Were the Olympic committee and the Olympic athletes ready for this sudden social media spotlight? Yes and no. While they may not have been completely prepared, the majority of Olympic athletes used social media to create a huge impact in the coverage of the Games.
In the basic social media policy set forth by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), four pages detail the rules that athletes were to follow while using social media during the Games. Rules such as not posting photos taken in the Olympic Village, getting consent before posting photos of other people and not using the Olympic symbol were put in place to establish a level of control over Olympic social media.
But just this blurb exists to address the content of posts by athletes: “Postings, blogs and tweets should at all times conform to the Olympic spirit and fundamental principles of Olympism as contained in the Olympic Charter, be dignified and in good taste, and not contain vulgar or obscene words or images.” As we saw during the games, this is where the most controversy arose in social media.
The direct contact with the public that was possible through social media made it so that the good, the bad and the ugly were on display for all to see. When Greek Olympian triple-jumper Voula Papachristou posted politically charged videos and a tweet mocking African immigrants, she was expelled from the Olympics immediately. And when U.S. Soccer Olympian Hope Solo called out analyst Brandy Chastain on Twitter for her remarks while commentating a U.S. versus Columbia soccer game, the twittersphere was abuzz. Solo issued an apology without any Olympic Committee consequences.
With the bad comes the good. Many headlines have stated that Usain Bolt “took the gold” in the Olympics social media race because of the growth of his fan counts and the number of times he was mentioned on social media. Michael Phelps gained social media celebrity by posting behind-the-scenes photos of life at the Olympics and an up-close look at his revered medals. The Olympics also resulted in a meme made about gymnast McKayla Maroney’s facial expression after she seemed unimpressed with her silver medal win. And a web video of the U.S. Swim Team singing “Call Me Maybe” also became a viral hit.
Whether the athletes were prepared for the spotlight or not, by the end of the Olympic Games, their social networks became a uniting force for the world. And even with a couple of negative instances, the importance of today’s social media-sphere shone through the Olympics. It’s probably safe to assume that even McKayla is impressed.