Social media – the fuel in the Olympic flame

by Paris Searson

Published on
August 26, 2016

It was coined the social media games, thanks predominantly to a younger generation of digitally-native athletes. They had the ability to share content from the point-of-view TV cameras and journalists can never cover – their own perspective.

Live streaming on social media platforms also gave event organisers direct access to audiences, with 160 million interactions throughout the opening ceremony on Instagram and Facebook, through applications such as Facebook Live.

But with this unprecedented access comes an increased ability for issues to become crises quicker than ever. Event organisers came up against a multitude of issues played out on social media, potentially overshadowing good news stories and making it almost impossible to control the narrative around these issues.

The Rio Olympic organisers appeared to show a lack of foresight and underestimation of their ability to deliver an issues-free games, when in their strategic communication plan, wrote that “citizens who publish content on the web are the ones who will ultimately define the success of the Games.”

With the Olympic Games now concluded, here are just some of the issues that threatened the positivity of the Games and how social media added fuel to the Olympic flame.

1. Zika Virus

The first major crisis occurred months before the Games began with an outbreak in South America of the mosquito-transmitted Zika virus. The virus can cause congenital birth defects if mothers are exposed during pregnancy, and rare neurological conditions.

How social media fueled the flame:

The risk of contracting Zika caused some athletes (and high profile guests such as the British Royals William, Kate and Harry) to pull out of attending the Games. Many of them announced their decision via social media. This took control of the messaging around Zika away from public health authorities or event organisers to the more influential athletes. Nearly 9 percent of all digital-content engagement around Brazil during the Olympics mentioned the Zika virus.

  Social media olympics 1

2. Unfit accommodation 

Some popular memes that also appeared prior to the start of the Games centred on the conditions of the Olympic Village accommodation. Tweets and Instagram posts from arriving athletes showed some of the less than ideal conditions, amplifying the issues and limiting the control of the Brazilian authorities.

Australian basketballer Andrew Bogut, created his own hashtag #IOCLuxuryLodging to share his frustration and disappointment at the state of the accommodation. Many other athletes and teams including China shared similar posts.

How social media fueled the flame:

With athletes directly sharing images of electrical wires, bad plumbing and lack of amenities with their fans, any press conferences arranged during this time to try and mitigate perceptions were not really taken seriously – the proof of lack of preparedness was being shared for all to see.

Social media olympics 2

3. Cyber bullying

Unfortunately athletes have not been immune to cyber-bullying during these Games, such as US gymnast Gabby Douglas. As she competed, she was subjected to fierce criticism over her appearance, lack of patriotism (for not putting her hand over her heart during the national anthem) and team support.

How social media fueled the flame:

While in the past, athletes were shielded behind strict media protocol during international competitions such as the Olympics. The only questions they had to answer were from media during controlled press conferences. Now, social media has opened them up to more intense scrutiny and uncensored criticism. The pressure that athletes are under to perform has now been magnified through the lens of the world being able to comment directly at and to the individual.

4. Rule 40

Traditionally the Olympics and its associated branding has been straightforward to control and limited for use to those who pay the hefty licensing fees. Rule 40, included in the International Olympic Committee rules, is a list of prohibited keywords, images and actions not to be used by non-sponsors.

So whilst social media platforms have embraced the Olympics by developing unique emojis, hashtags, filters and frames, the IOC’s ruling means that brands and even athletes are not allowed to participate in many conversations under the threat of huge fines.

How social media fueled the flame:

Given the immense popularity of this Olympics on social media, this was the year that the relevance of Rule 40 was publicly questioned.

An online campaign developed social media tools to help athletes bring attention to Rule 40 without contravening it.

In the article Why the Olympics’ social media blackout doesn’t make much sense, digital marketing strategist Tim Howell suggested that restricting conversations about the Olympics did more to damage the brand than it did to protect it – “another piece of evidence that the Olympic Games are an old-fashioned event that don’t mesh with modern life.”

Stay tuned for an upcoming post where we will give our predictions for what could be next for the ‘social media games’.