The IOC vs. social media

A recent article on Mashable about the 2012 Olympics in London again shows just how crazy the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has gotten when it comes to regulating its event.

It’s being billed as “the first social media Olympic Games” but with the IOC’s rather anti-social policies it’s questionable just how social they will be.

Athletes will not be allowed to tweet photos of themselves with
products that aren’t official Olympics sponsors or share photos or videos from inside the athletes’ village.

Fans, too, could be barred from sharing on Facebook and YouTube photos and videos of themselves enjoying the action.

Business owners will have restrictions as well. They won’t be able to lure customers by advertising with official Olympics nomenclature such as “2012 Games.” Regulators will scour Olympic venues to potentially obfuscate non-sponsor logos on objects as trivial as toilets.

The restrictions on business owners are somewhat understandable. But obfuscating logos on everything at venues down to the toilets? I think that’s taking it a bit too far.

From later in the story, the restrictions on athletes appear to be tied to the IOC’s desire to control the message. Quoting Alex Huot, the IOC’s head of social media:

We encourage athletes to share their Games experience. The Olympic
Athletes’ Hub has been in part built for this. We have created a place for them to join and connect with our millions of fans around the world and to share not just during the Olympics but long after the Olympics are gone.

Unfortunately the athletes themselves have personal brands to build as well. This works out well for the IOC, at the expense of the athletes, and certainly looks like the first step down an extremely slippery slope.

The IOC seems to be forgetting without the athletes, the Olympic Games would cease to exist. As a fan, I should be allowed to follow my favorite athlete through his/her regular social media feeds–whether or not they are at the Olympic Games. To expect me as a fan to “switch channels” to the Olympic Athletes’ Hub is ludicrous, and to prohibit the athletes from building their own personal brands during the Games is something I find nearly unconscionable.

I honestly wonder how long it will be until an alternative quadrennial/biennial athletic competition to replace the over-commercialized Olympic Games becomes a reality. I don’t think it will be too much longer before someone decides “enough is enough” and gives the IOC a swift kick in the pocketbook.

I acknowledge every sport requires rules. But do we really need to have such fascist rules about what amateur athletes tweet and blog while in competition? Until and unless it compromises the integrity of the competition itself, the IOC should keep its hands off.

The new Olympic creed?

Well, by the time I got to this one, the Ministry of Education had already retracted the original order. But I think it’s worth mentioning anyway because the fact this whole thing happened is merely the symptom of a larger problem, and it is marketing-related which has become one of my regular topics.

A recent blog entry by “mrbrown” at showed a redacted copy of a letter to parents whose children were “specially selected to be part of the school delegation” of the Youth Olympic Games. The catch was that students had to bring their own refreshment money (and stadium refreshments are not known for being cheap), and were allowed to bring water bottles as long as they did not have the Nike or Adidas logos on them. This latter part was what caused a huge stink and as mrbrown later followed up was retracted.

What appears to have caused all of this to begin with was an IOC rule about athletes (note: not spectator) not being allowed to wear or display non-sponsor logos, and other rules prohibiting display of sponsors’ competitors logos under the guise of protecting sponsors. This blog entry from February shows just how easy it is to accidentally break the rule, as Katie Uhlaender did (though it’s really hard to fault her for preferring her Perrier to Coca-Cola’s Dasani). I think it highlights just how absurd this rule actually is and how far the Olympic movement has come from being purely about sport to being a cash cow whose loud mooing is heard around the world in a hundred different languages.

What happened? How did the modern Olympics diverge from being purely about sport when they began in 1896 to being so blatantly commercialized? A little reading on Wikipedia reveals the answer. It goes back to the election of Juan Antonio Samaranch to president of the IOC back in 1980. His goal was to make the IOC financially independent.

While an honorable goal, it quickly became obvious the only way to do this was to sell exclusive sponsorship rights. This was something that Avery Brundage steadfastly refused to do during his tenure (and, we would assume, Michael Morris refused as well during his brief tenure as IOC president).

As an example, one nasty and likely unforseen side effect of the sale of national broadcast rights is the blackout of Internet streams from foreign countries’ media outlets. This means if you’re in the US, for example, you’re stuck with NBC’s coverage. Rationale? They paid for the broadcast rights in the US, so, say, the BBC gets blacked out on this side of the pond.

The huge influx of corporate cash may have helped the Olympic movement, but I postulate that it came at too big of a cost. It destroyed what the Olympics were supposed to be about to begin with: the purity of athletic competition. Now, it’s more about whose logos can be displayed at a press conference or McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, or any number of large corporations getting to display “Olympic Partner” and the five rings in their advertising.

I don’t think that’s what the IOC as led by Demetrius Vikelas had in mind in 1896. And I’m pretty sure they’d never have gone for this in ancient Greece, either.

Controversy, timing, hockey, personal branding, and publicity

Dan Schwabel ( recently wrote a piece on the story of two different reactions of hockey players passed over for their respective 2010 Winter Olympics national teams. My interest in this story comes from two interests of mine: professional hockey and marketing/PR. (Yes, I know it may come as a shock to some, but I do have an interest in both.)

Scott Gomez of the Montreal Canadiens, a former NHL All-Star, was passed over for the USA national team. Scott’s reaction was relatively mild-mannered and happy-go-lucky, acknowledging the realities that there are 23 roster slots but certainly more than 23 players that can be seen as qualified to fill those slots, a decision which is extremely subjective and certainly haunts some players passed over for years (probably the most notable example: Herb Brooks).

It is what it is. You get the call, you realize it, you move on and focus more on here. It wasn’t meant to be. Congratulations to the guys who made it. You just wish them the best of luck and hope the U.S.A. brings the gold.

Now, we move on to the reaction of Mikael Samuelsson, who played on the Swedish national team in 2006, and won a gold medal. Given this, it’s a bit more understandable his reaction isn’t exactly the stuff congeniality award winners are made of:

I pretty much have one comment and maybe I’ll regret it. But they can go [expletive] themselves. That’s what I really think. […] If [Swedish coach Bengt-Aake Gustafsson] doesn’t want me, he doesn’t want me.

There is a time for controversy. I think Mikael picked a really good time to be controversial. The gold medal he already has, of course, means Mikael has a little more room to get away with what he said, and in fact may well be the sports equivalent of a “get away with it card” in this case. (Scott has yet to win any Olympic medals, having only played for the USA national team once before in 2006.)

While I generally disapprove of indecorum, Mikael’s reaction will definitely get people talking about him and may have little effect on his real chances of making the Olympic team. That’s not to say Scott Gomez’s graceful reaction was the wrong one. Not all publicity is good publicity, and Scott’s choice was likely a good course of action for Scott in his circumstances. In the proper circumstances, publicity about controversy can be leveraged to work to one’s advantage.