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British athlete Tom Daley reacts as he uses his cellphone during practice at the Aquatics Centre before the start of the London 2012 Olympic Games. (JORGE SILVA/Reuters)
British athlete Tom Daley reacts as he uses his cellphone during practice at the Aquatics Centre before the start of the London 2012 Olympic Games. (JORGE SILVA/Reuters)

The promise and the pitfalls of a social-media Olympics Add to ...

Michael Tayler didn’t have Twitter until he joined the Canadian Olympic Team. The 20-year-old Ottawa native joined the social media service to keep friends and family updated on his preparations for the men’s kayak slalom competition, but his account has taken on a life of its own.

“Attention: there is a lost child (me) at the whitewater venue who can’t find his family in the stands,” he tweeted to his 615 followers Monday. “If anyone sees them on TV let me know.”

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Social media has opened up the Games this year, as websites like Twitter and Facebook allow fans to see the Olympics from the athletes’ perspective for the first time. For some competitors, like swimmer Michael Phelps – who graciously took to Twitter to congratulate fellow American Ryan Lochte after losing to him on Saturday – hundreds of thousands wait to read their every post. Mr. Tayler may not have the same attention thrust on him as Mr. Phelps, but his followers have doubled in the past week.

Mr. Tayler’s first few followers were friends, but that group has since expanded to include hundreds of athletes and fans. “The thing I like most is interacting with other athletes,” he says. He was able to exchange messages with people he’d never met before the Games began – and when they arrived, “we kind of already knew each other.”

More than 150 Canadian athletes are using Twitter to give an inside look at the Games from their own perspective, posting photos and reacting to events as they happen. The athletes enjoy being able to reach out to fans so easily.

“It just makes it feel even more special being able to share the experience with all your supporters,” 20-year-old synchronized swimmer Gabrielle Cardinal says.

Twitter activity isn’t just limited to output – the athletes are interacting with fans as well. “Sometimes people ask me good questions and I think it’s really neat that they get answers so quickly,” says 33-year-old Hamilton marathon runner Reid Coolsaet.

This is Karen Cockburn’s fourth Olympic Games. In Beijing, she posted daily blogs to her Facebook page. “That’s when I first learned from my followers that they like to have that personal account from an athlete’s first-hand experience of the Games,” she says.

During the 2008 Beijing Games, there were 300,000 tweets per day; today, that figure is 400 million. Ms. Cockburn says this has had a visible impact on athletes. “Athletes are spending a lot more time on their hand-held devices updating followers throughout the day,” she says.

This makes sense to Twitter spokeswoman Elaine Filadelfo. She says it’s the “direct access fans have to athletes themselves that they didn’t have before” that’s driving so many people to social media.

Unfortunately, Mr. Tayler didn’t get a swift response to his Monday tweet. “Nobody helped me,” he says, laughing. “I really hoped someone would see my family on TV.”

MIXED MESSAGES ON SOCIAL MEDIA

Being able to post anything you want online has always come with its dangers. And the Olympics this year is no exception. Just ask Voula Papachristou, Michel Morganella or Hope Solo.

“Its 2 bad we cant have commentators who better represents the team&knows more about the game,” Ms. Solo, an American soccer player, wrote on Twitter on Saturday. It was part of a string of posts lashing out at NBC commentator Brandi Chastain – herself a former Olympic-medal winning soccer player – that earned Ms. Solo a significant backlash on social media. Her coach said that while she would not be disciplined, they had a frank conversation about the importance of the image she was projecting.

That’s not the worst case, though. Mr. Morganella, a Swiss soccer player, was kicked out of the Games Monday for a racist tweet about South Koreans. And Ms. Papachristou, a Greek triple-jumper, was expelled last week for a racist tweet against African immigrants.

Both have since apologized, but their stories are poignant in a world that is growing used to impolite online comment. While the average citizen can say whatever they wish online with virtually no retribution, the Olympics holds athletes to a much higher standing. Punishment is swift and severe and years of training can be swept away with one thoughtless 140-character tweet. Twitter, working with the U.S. Olympic Committee, helped provide social media guidelines to athletes, but Twitter’s Elaine Filadelfo says that guidelines is all they are – which makes them difficult to enforce.

Reinforcing the stereotype of Canadians as a laid-back bunch, our athletes have avoided stirring that same level of controversy. “We’re pretty boring,” Michael Tayler says with a laugh. Dimitri Soudas, the executive director of communications for the Canadian Olympic Committee, wrote in an e-mail that the committee encourages athletes to share their stories over social media, but that what they post online “should at all times conform to the Olympic spirit and fundamental principles of the Olympic Games as contained in the Olympic Charter, be dignified and in good taste, and not contain vulgar or obscene words or images.”

If the Canadian Olympic Committee wanted someone at the top to handle message control, Mr. Soudas was the right pick – he’s the former communications director for Stephen Harper, whose government is known for keeping its players on script.

Karen Cockburn says it’s best to just try and be reasonable. “During the Games, you are in the safe zone if you just give personal updates,” she says. “So I try to stay within that zone.”

But even a small mistake can trigger backlash, and the last thing athletes need are distractions. Derek Robinson, a sports psychologist with Calgary’s Canadian Sport Centre, says he’s advised athletes in the past to have a social media “blackout” as their competition comes up so they don’t lose focus.

“You want to enable yourself to have the right perspective and right focus, to manage and limit distractions.” Mr. Robinson says, warning that if athletes start caring about the wrong thing at the wrong time, “performance is going to suffer.”

THE PERILS OF GLOBAL CONVERSATION

Social media controversy isn’t limited to athletes. Guy Adams, the Los Angeles correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent, discovered his Twitter account was suspended on Sunday. He had recently posted a string of tweets lambasting TV broadcast rightsholder NBC for time-delaying some Olympics segments, but it wasn’t his opinion that forced him out: he had posted the e-mail address of Gary Zenkel, the president of NBC Olympics, to let followers know who to complain to about the hours-delayed broadcast.

Twitter won’t comment on the suspension for privacy reasons, but spokeswoman Elaine Filadelfo said that sharing a person’s private e-mail is against the social media website’s rules. Mr. Adams said he won’t comment until he learns “exactly what happened,” but shared a copy of his e-mail exchange with Twitter about the suspension. In it, he challenges Twitter over the private nature of Mr. Zenkel’s e-mail address, saying it was in tandem with a standard formula for NBC employees that was easy to determine.

In the exchange, he says it’s “quite worrying” that NBC might be playing a role in shutting down Twitter accounts of reporters who have been critical of their Olympic coverage.

The frustration that pushed Mr. Adams to publish Mr. Zenkel’s e-mail address stems from another development that has arisen over social media: In an age where everything can be live-streamed online and results available everywhere, time-delaying events to be broadcast in prime time makes little sense. And so the conversation went against NBC’s favour, with the hashtagged phrase #nbcfail trending worldwide.

“Ryan Lochte could cure cancer during a race & NBC would air it 6 hours later with the cure portion removed for a Seacrest interview #NBCfail,” wrote user @NotSportsCenter. Jason Davis (@davisjsn) wrote “NBC pays billions of dollars to give us coverage about the Olympics instead of actually showing, you know, the Olympics. #nbcfail”

Writing on his website BuzzMachine, journalist and media consultant Jeff Jarvis called the hashtag both entertaining and “economically enlightening.” While NBC’s decision to delay broadcasts to prime time centres around commercial revenue, he argues NBC should bow to the public conversation revealed by Twitter. “To experiment with alternatives when billions are at stake is risky. But so is not experimenting and not learning when millions of your viewers can complain about you on Twitter,” he wrote.

There’s another unexpected result when anyone can be in the conversation: when a critical mass of mobile devices all try sending data at once, it can cause a data traffic jam. The Guardian has reported that GPS technology used to track cyclists for television broadcasts was being disabled by so much text-message and mobile data traffic, leaving some broadcasters to grasp at straws to measure times. The International Olympic Committee’s response: “Consider only sending urgent updates.”