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The social media snafus we can expect from Olympic athletes in Rio

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
Careful, Phelps.
  • Ashley Rodriguez
By Ashley Rodriguez


Published This article is more than 2 years old.

It’s tough being an Olympic athlete in this day and age. You train around the clock and eat like a race horse, all the while having to keep up appearances online. But the internet is a lot harder to control than one’s body mass index. A misplaced tweet here, a rogue Snapchat there, and an athlete’s online reputation could be left in tatters.

For Olympic athletes during the games, the stakes are even higher. They could risk their country’s shot at the gold with one unfortunate status update. Two athletes were expelled from the 2012 London Olympics, the first games where social media played a real role, for making poor choices online. That’s partly why sponsors like Visa trained their athletes on social media before the games.

With a plethora of new platforms to contend with, from Snapchat to Periscope, and strict rules around how athletes can use them during the month of the games, there are bound to be blunders in Rio as well. Here are our predictions for what those will look like.

Someone will haphazardly wade into Brazil’s volatile political situation

There’s a place and time to get political, and for athletes, during the Olympics is not it. Weighing in on political, religious, or racial issues online is a big no-no during the internet blackout period from July 24 to Aug. 24, the International Olympic Committee says.

Gay athletes had to come to terms with this during the 2014 winter games in Sochi, Russia, where an anti-LGBT law reignited protests over gay rights in the country. Instead of fueling the fire on social media, and risking their chances at a gold, athletes voiced their support for gay rights before the games started and kept quiet during. One opted for a simple six-finger salute, in reference to “Principle Six,” an anti-discrimination clause in the Olympic charter (pdf).

Like the Sochi Olympics, this year’s summer games take place in a country that’s fraught with political and economic strife. We’ll see if the more than 10,000 athletes descending on Rio this summer will similarly avoid sounding off.

Meanwhile, the US women’s soccer team has been publicly campaigning for equal pay ahead of Rio, and it will be interesting to see whether its players will take that battle onto the field during the games.

A medalist will be sent home early for celebrating in an un-Olympic fashion

It’s totally understandable when athletes, who train non-stop during the weeks and months leading up to the Olympics, celebrate their wins or blow off steam after the games. But they would be best advised to keep their high jinks private.

Case in point: US snowboarder Scotty Lago’s abrupt departure from Vancouver in 2010. After winning a bronze medal in the winter games, the 22-year-old was caught on camera draping the award over his groin and allowing a woman to kiss it on a Vancouver street. He had to leave the games after the photo surfaced online, to avoid a public scandal.

And even winning eight golds at the Beijing Olympics couldn’t shield the most-decorated Olympian of all time—Michael Phelps—from being lambasted by the media after he was photographed smoking a bong at a party in November 2008.

An athlete will fire off a “hilarious” tweet that’s just plain offensive

Sure as eggs, almost every Olympic season, an athlete comes under fire for bigotry disguised as a joke online. In 2014, it was Olympic torch bearer Irina Rodnina, who was admonished for tweeting a racist photo of US president Barack Obama that she later said was posted by hackers. In 2012, a Greek triple jumper was expelled from her Olympic team for tweeting a racist joke. And, that same year, a Swiss soccer player was kicked out of the games after going on a vitriolic Twitter tirade.

Even offensive remarks made outside of the Olympics can be career-killers. Two Olympians faced backlash in 2010 after posting homophobic comments online, and it cost at least one of them a lucrative sponsorship deal.

Let’s hope this year’s competitors are smarter than their predecessors.

An Olympian will plug a product they shouldn’t

Retired NFL quarterback Peyton Manning put in a word for his favorite pizza (Papa Johns) and brews (Budweiser and Bud Light) after career-defining moments. But any athlete who endorses a non-Olympic sponsor during the games will find themselves on the wrong end of the IOC’s rule 40, which prohibits athletes from appearing in ads from non-Olympic sponsors from July 24 to Aug. 24.

This rule nearly landed Phelps in hot water with the IOC once again, when a photo of him posing near a Louis Vuitton bag was leaked during the London games in 2012.

Changes to the rule this year, after athletes rebelled in 2012, would allow athletes like US Olympic basketball player Steph Curry to appear in ongoing, non-Olympic-related ad campaigns, like JPMorgan Chase’s “Masters” push. But Curry or the bank would have had to apply for written approval and started airing the ads six months before the games.

An athlete will live-stream from an Olympic venue

Athletes should just avoid Snapchat, Periscope, Facebook Live, and other platforms like these altogether during the summer games. These tools weren’t around during the last Olympics, but the IOC has called for a moratorium on sharing all audio and video from inside Olympic venues, during Rio’s blackout period. Best to keep your phone in your pocket.

An athlete will back up an Olympic training video to the cloud

This sounds innocent enough, but the IOC ban on uploading audio or video from Olympic venues to the internet also applies to cloud-storage services like Dropbox, iCloud, or Google Photos. An iCloud leak, like the one that exposed private images of actress Jennifer Lawrence, during the games could be a violation. US lawyer Bradley Shear, who advises brands about social media, thinks the IOC will take it easy on athletes if their accounts were hacked. But why risk being embroiled in public scandal at all?

Or, who knows? Maybe this will be the first snafu-free Olympic season!

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