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london 2012

A worker records images using a phone outside the Olympic Stadium at the Olympic Park in Stratford, the location of the London 2012 Olympic Games, in east London July 20, 2012.TOBY MELVILLE/Reuters

For decades, the International Olympic Committee has managed to fend off every foe, from terrorists and recessions to bad weather and corruption, emerging ever stronger. But now, as the London Games open Friday, a force has emerged that's posing the first real threat to the IOC's stronghold: social media.

Facebook, Twitter and other online outlets are beginning to erode the IOC's power base much in the same way they helped bring down governments across North Africa.

For the IOC, social media present an awkward dilemma.

This is an organization that has built its empire by controlling every aspect of the Games and ruthlessly protecting its corporate sponsors.

Consider that police at the London Games have been told not to bring small bags of Walkers chips into the Olympic park because the company is not an Olympic sponsor. Instead, cops must dump their chips into clear plastic bags.

Trying to control Twitter or Facebook won't be nearly as easy.

The number of Twitter users has jumped to 140 million from six million in the last four years. Facebook has topped 900 million users and there are countless other sites doing much the same thing.

Here's the problem for the IOC.

It understands the power of social media and it's trying to harness that with a host of programs aimed at making the London Games the "most social and tech-savvy Olympics ever." But it also has to protect its corporate partners like McDonald's and Coca Cola, which are footing nearly all of the $3-billion operating costs for London.

The solution? A four-page social-media policy that athletes, volunteers and every other Games participant must follow. It's a cumbersome, contradictory document that illustrates the IOC's struggle.

While proclaiming the IOC "actively encourages and supports" the use of social media, the policy lists numerous restrictions. Athletes and others can't report on competitions; post videos about events; use Games' images or mascots; promote any company or brand; or use the word "Olympic" if it is associated with any product or service. They also can't post a photograph of anyone without that person's permission. Violators risk being expelled from the Olympics "without notice."

"I find the IOC rules a bit bewildering," says Canadian marathoner Dylan Wykes who plans to curtail his tweeting during the Games.

"I would've thought that these Games would offer a perfect opportunity for the IOC to work with the athletes to enhance exposure for the Olympic brand and each athlete's 'brand' or profile through the use of social media and Twitter. I've never really received a clear explanation for the restrictions."

Fellow Canadian marathoner Reid Coolsaet plans to tweet a lot during the Games but also finds the rules bewildering.

"The IOC rules seem a little too strict and I think in future years we will look back and laugh at how strict they were," he said.

IOC spokesman Andrew Mitchell said the organization is trying to encourage athletes to use social media during the Games within certain boundaries.

But he said the IOC won't monitor Twitter or Facebook accounts.

"We work on education and through our national Olympic committees to share the guideline," he said. Any breaches, he added, would be dealt with by national Olympic committees "based on common sense."

The power of social media has already been tested in London. When a bus carrying some American athletes took a wrong turn and got lost last week, hurdler Kerron Clement tweeted about the mishap and added: "Not a good first impression, London."

His tweets were picked by media around the world and forced Sebastian Coe, chairman of the organizing committee, to defend the transportation system.

More tests will come once the competitions begin. Many athletes have sponsorship deals that conflict with Olympic sponsors and they haven't been shy about using Twitter to promote their backers.

"Absolutely LOVING my BMW day!!! Best day of my life EVER!!!! I want to take up motor racing!" Rebecca Adlington, a British swimmer backed by the car company, said in a tweet last year. Will Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt refrain from mentioning Puma with whom he has a lucrative deal? How about LeBron James and Nike?

Many say the IOC policy goes too far.

"It won't work and frankly, I think they would look foolish if they kept an athlete from competing because the Olympic rings were in a Facebook photo," said Mark Schaefer, of Schaefer Marketing Solutions in Knoxville, Tenn., which helps large companies market through social media.

"It's going to be impossible to monitor," added Trevor Turnbull, a Vancouver-based marketing consultant who works with athletes. "There's a lot of grey area."

Mr. Turnbull recently asked Australian beach-volleyball player Claire Kelly to review the social-media policy and offer some recommendations for athletes. Ms. Kelly's assessment, posted on a site called Sports Networker, pointed out numerous pitfalls for competitors.

For example, she said, tweeting something as simple as "Won our games against China, USA. Next up the Brazilians" could violate the policy because it might be considered reporting on an event.

Even worse, she argued, what if a rival alerts the IOC about the offending tweet in a bid to have that person expelled?

"The IOC has asked anyone if they see any breaches of the policy to let them know," Ms. Kelly wrote.

"And let's face it, most athletes keep their friends close but their enemies (top competition) closer, especially in social-media networks as it is so easy to monitor their activities. So it is highly likely most athletes will have access to their competitors' news feeds."

Her advice to athletes headed to London? "Post sparingly."