LONDON – In the final days before the Opening Ceremony in Athens in 2004, the big story was the stunning expulsion of two of Greece’s most accomplished Olympians. The tale involved doping allegations, missed drug tests, a sensational and possibly fake motorcycle accident and the public removal of the athletes’ credentials.
This week, another athlete was kicked off the Greek Olympic team. Her offense: tweeting.
Triple jumper Voula Papachristou was removed from the team for tweeting an incoherent and racially insensitive joke – something about West Nile virus-bearing mosquitoes and African athletes – and for supporting a controversial far right politician.
It is hard to say whether this represents progress or a regression. Is it a step forward to hold an athlete accountable for indefensible comments? Or is it an overreaction and violation of the principle of free speech?And why is a triple jumper using social media to say really stupid things anyway?
Beijing was really the first Olympics of the social media era, but there has been exponential growth of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook use by athletes in the lead-up to London.
Most U.S. athletes have Twitter accounts. Some are fun and provide insights into the athletes’ Olympic experience. Among them: @lolojones @kerrileewalsh @CarliLoyd @alliseeisgold (Camden’s Jordan Burroughs).
Others are simply vehicles for athletes to push their sponsors. Swimmer Ryan Lochte (@ryanlochte) is a savvy marketer, judging by his tweets. He was frantically pushing Lochte merchandise in the days before the IOC-mandated Olympic ban on such sales began.
The USOC has an Ambassadors program for athletes who earn spots on U.S. national teams. Profile athletes explain the importance of projecting a consistent and positive image at all times, whether being interviewed, doing a photo shoot or tweeting about that day’s breakfast.
“We found it to be really valuable,” Scott Blackmun, the CEO of the USOC, said Thursday morning. “The advice that we give pertains not only to social media but to all the ways the athletes comport themselves. We don’t look at the social media side as any different from any opportunity our athletes have to show who they are and where they’re from.”
Two-time gold medalist Mariel Zagunis, who will be the U.S. flag-bearer in Friday’s ceremony, is one athlete who was unknown going into the Athens Games and is one of the faces of Team USA today.
“It’s just about being smart and being respectful,” Zagunis said. “When it comes to the Olympics, it’s just about sport. It’s not about politics or religion.”
Or West Nile mosquitoes.