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Canadian diver Meaghan Benfeito takes part in a training session at the Aquatic Centre in the Olympic Villageat the 2012 Summer Olympics in London on July 26. (Sean Kilpatrick)
Canadian diver Meaghan Benfeito takes part in a training session at the Aquatic Centre in the Olympic Villageat the 2012 Summer Olympics in London on July 26. (Sean Kilpatrick)

Coaches wonder about good, bad of social media Add to ...

Just in case anyone thinks the London Olympics have the exclusive on sporting social media, Canadian kayaker Adam van Koeverden still has messages from Beijing in 2008 that he yet to answer.

But the social media spotlight hovers over the London Games like the Bat Signal. And given the availability of so many Olympic sports on so many platforms, there’s plenty to say.

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Social media also allows friends, families and others to reach out to Olympians.

In bygone years, elite athletes lived in an Olympic bubble that stretched from the athletes village to their venue. That bubble still exists, but now there is an Internet cable that connects them to the world via Twitter, Facebook, as well as email and Skype.

For coaches looking to ensure their charges have their eye on the prize, it’s a double-edged sword.

“On the one hand it’s a bit of a distraction from the pressures and the demands and the chaos,” said Mitch Geller, chief technology officer for Diving Canada. “There’s also a lot of time on your hands that you have to fill that you don’t normally fill. And so they can converse — in their new way of conversing, of course, with no capitals — with friends and so on.

“On the other hand, it can become a little bit too distracting too. They’re competing to see who gets more followers. That kind of thing. We’re actually hearing that a number of our athletes are now kind of just saying ‘You know what, I’ve had enough of Facebook. It’s getting a little bit silly.’ . . . They’re just finding it’s overload. And some of them are just shutting it down.

“They still do their tweeting and stuff,” he added.

Rowing Canada high performance director Peter Cookson says his athletes are too busy before races to tweet. It takes a while to prepare the boat and get to the starting line let alone put on a game face.

But Cookson, who says he finds Twitter and such a distraction, says the creeping vines of social media can add to the stress of a multi-Games environment like the Olympics.

“You try to prepare them the best you can because it’s a totally different environment,” he said. “We don’t get microphones stuck into our faces very often and for them it’s like ‘Wow,’ this is different from what they’re used to.

“There’s pressure. There’s more people actually sending them messages, with social media and things, they’re getting a lot more attention. I think it’s really hard to prepare them totally for it.”

Rower Conlin McCabe of Brockville, Ont., talked of all the messages he got from friends and family before the first heat of the men’s eight, excited that he was finally going to race. The boat finished last, with his disappointment amplified by all people who had been looking forward to the race.

There was a happy ending in that the eight bounced back to win silver. Most of the Canadian men stuck to themselves in between.

“We weren’t checking the Internet after our first race,” McCabe said later with a chuckle.

Like Cookson, Geller says his divers are too busy getting ready to compete to tweet.

“Once they get to the pool, the venue, it’s all business,” said Geller. “Their phones are somewhere else. We don’t have to make those rules.”

And yet, Emelie Heymans of St-Lambert, Que., was on Twitter, encouraging fans to watch mere minutes before climbing the board for her first dive “. . .pour la premiere medaille du Canada??? Houuuu!!!”

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, perhaps. Heymans and synchro diving partner Jennifer Abel of Laval, Que., won bronze for Canada’s first medal of the Games.

Unable to sleep that night, the two kept at Twitter.

“I love the feedback,” Abel said the next day. “I think last night I read everything that was on my Twitter. I’m really happy we can have support from the social websites, it’s really appreciated.”

Added Heymans: “It’s awesome, all the response that we got. The people from home, on Twitter, it’s really crazy. It makes us really feel good.”

Social media can also be a source of support for athletes when they’re dealing with disappointment.

Edmonton triathlete Paula Findlay, who apologized to Canadians after finishing last on Saturday, said her e-mail and Twitter account exploded with people telling her she had no reason to be sorry.

Isolated in a hotel near their venue, it was to each their own for Canadian rowers.

“I thought it was a help, I mean I embraced it,” said Krista Guloien of Port Moody, B.C., a member of the silver medal women’s eight. “I think people who kind of wanted to back off from it could totally do that. That’s a choice, right, and I chose to be a little bit more involved.

“I mean it’s so quick. You go on and you can go through it and you can see other results from other Canadians, you see messages of support, you can message your teammates. It was just kind of fun. I had pictures, I just felt like I was interacting with everyone and sharing my journey with people at home, which was exciting.”

Crewmate Ashley Brzozowicz of London, Ont., says social media helps her deal with the isolation during competition.

“We try to stay out of the hoopla. But to be able to feel the support of your friends and family at home and see what was going on without having to do a long phone call or whatever, you can just quickly check, people can send you a short message and you really felt like you were still a part of it.”

Chef de mission Mark Tewksbury is an enthusiastic newcomer to Twitter, reminding people of his handle when the subject comes up. Like most, he sees it as a positive if handled properly.

“I’ve become a real supporter and fan of it actually,” he said. “I was very reluctant to become a part of it. But for me, it serves so many different purposes. I’m able to get results from following the right people, because I’m at so many different venues and can’t get the information. I’m able to see the athletes and congratulate them, but also showcase the behind the scenes of what makes all this all happen by doing some shoutouts to the operational team.

“So I think it’s a really useful tool. We just have to be careful obviously and there are some parameters. We’re all learning. ... So so far so good.”

The Canadian team has no specific social media rules other than IOC guidelines that encourage athletes to use such platforms as a blog or a personal diary but not to function as a reporter.

“So we’re able to share our personal experiences but that as far as we can go,” Tewksbury said.

The other guideline is to respect the Olympic movement, “to be respectful and dignified in the way that we’re using (it),” he added.

The Canadian team has suggested to its athletes that if you’re new to Twitter, starting up during the Olympics Games is probably not a good idea.

Diver Roseline Filion of Laval says Twitter is harmless.

“It’s definitely not a distraction for me,” she said. “It’s fun. I like to see what people are up to. Especially here, it’s so much fun to tweet and tell everybody how we see things, how we feel and how we’re going through this process and they can feel like they’re here with us. It’s an opportunity for them as well to be included in the Olympics Games. If it was a distraction, I wouldn’t do it.”

Partner Meaghan Benfeito of Montreal says it’s been a positive.

“A lot of people we don’t know that have tweeted us good lucks. We checked before our event. It was amazing how many people know us. Our twitter has actually exploded. I think I went from a thousand to two thousand followers in four hours. It’s mostly positive. We haven’t had anything (negative) . . . well I haven’t, so far.”

But van Koeverden, who has had a website for more than five years that allows people to reach him via email, knows that social media can carry bad vibes

“I still have at last 150 unread messages from Beijing. I can’t go through them all. They’re all really nice but they’re all really similar too. And some of them are negative so I don’t really want to read them.”

The three-time Olympian from Oakville, Ont., who used Twitter to congratulate other Canadians for their performances from a pre-Olympic training camp in France, says he may pull back a bit during the Games.

“I’m going to try and moderate the use of Twitter a little bit, I don’t manage my own Facebook fan page so I don’t have to worry about that. I’ll think I’ll just do what I want.”

Last year at the world championships, he tweeted a reminder that his race was on TV in two hours time. But the worlds are not the Olympics, he noted.

“If I had notifications on my phone for Twitter then it would be going all day probably because there’s a lot.”

On the plus side, van Koeverden enjoys the interest that social media is showing in the Canadian Summer Olympians.

For others, it’s just more background noise. Geller, for one, says he has no need of any other communication pipelines.

“I find that I have a hard time just staying on top of my email,” he lamented. “So I’m just sticking with that.”

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