Social Media at the 2012 Summer Olympics: Rules, Controversies, and How You Can Participate

In case you’ve been living under a rock, the 2012 Summer Olympics begin in London this week — on July 27th, to be exact.

News outlets are touting these Games as the first “social media Olympics.” Yes, social media was around during the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. But consider this: in 2008, Facebook boasted about 100 million users, and Twitter around 6 million. Four years later, those numbers have reached a whopping 900 million and 140 million, respectively. Not to mention, social platforms such as Pinterest only became popular in recent years — Instagram didn’t even exist two years ago.

So what does all this mean? Basically, be prepared to experience the Games through more than just your television. According to BusinessWeek, “Organizers expect more tweets, Facebook posts, videos and photos to be shared from London than any other sport event in history.”

London Olympic Stadium: Don’t take video of this

London Olympic Stadium: Don’t take video of this

In fact, how the International Olympics Committee (IOC) is handling social media coverage of the Games has already made headlines. In an attempt to regulate athletes’, volunteers’, and ticket holders’ usage of Olympics-related social media, the IOC wrote official guidelines detailing what can and can’t be posted online. At first, the IOC disallowed ticket holders from sharing online any kind of photography or video taken at the Olympic Games; now, photographs are okay, but video is still against the rules.

Furthermore, athletes are instructed to only post in a “first-person, diary-type format” and must ask permission of their fellow athletes before uploading pictures or video of them. Two Australian swimmers have already gotten in trouble for their online actions — after posting photos of themselves holding guns, the swimmers were banned by the Australian Olympic Committee from using social media during the Games. They also must leave the Olympics early, returning home as soon as their events are over.

Pretty extreme consequences for a single photo. However, odds are you aren’t an athlete and likely won’t be attending the Games in London, so all these rules aren’t quite so important to you. In that spirit, fellow spectators, let’s start training those fingers and thumbs for the social media Olympics! Here are a few ways you can participate in the action:

Follow and interact with the athletes and fans.

The IOC has created the Olympic Athletes’ Hub, where you can find many of the athletes’ Facebook and Twitter pages, as well as those for specific sports and teams. Facebook also has its own hub, called Explore London 2012, which compiles the pages of athletes, teams, sports, and official presences such as The Olympic Games and London 2012. Other social media platforms, including Twitter, Google+, Tumblr, Instagram, and Foursquare, will be or are already promoting their own Olympic-themed portals and activities.

Watch events online.

Maybe if I just watch people running around a track for a really long time, I’ll burn calories, too!

Maybe if I just watch people running around a track for a really long time, I’ll burn calories, too!

In years past, U.S. coverage of the Olympics (which air on various NBC networks) has been confined largely to TV highlights of the most popular sports. This year, however, “every frame of every competition” will be streaming live online to cable and satellite subscribers, amounting to more than 3,500 hours of Olympic coverage, according to AdWeek. The usual primetime lineup of the largest events will still be shown on television, but NBC hopes that people watching live coverage during the day will talk about it on social media, heightening anticipation and excitement for the subsequent primetime broadcast.

Use mobile apps to stay informed.

If Twitter and Facebook updates on your smartphone aren’t enough, various outlets have created special mobile apps for the Olympic Games as well. Over at London 2012’s official site, you can download apps for Olympic news and results, a guide to Olympic happenings taking place across the UK, and a mobile game. NBC is offering apps for news, event schedules and results, medal counts, photos, and live video footage. Apps are also available from the BBC and for several national teams, including Team USA.

Given all these interactive options on social media, will the IOC really be able to monitor and regulate millions of people’s tweets and Facebook posts for two weeks? Frankly, no, but it sounds like they’re going to try anyway. No matter the outcome, observing how social media changes the way we experience the Olympic Games — for better or for worse — promises to be an event in its own right.

Will you be watching the Summer Olympics in London? Do you plan to follow any athletes or news on social media, or is TV coverage enough? What Olympic sport are you most looking forward to?

Image credit to Government Olympic Communications, stewartcutler, and

Rachel Hamsmith

When not writing for the blog, Rachel is a data entry specialist at QLP. She spends most of her free time consuming a variety of geeky TV shows, movies, and books, as well as funny cat videos and other Internet oddities. Otherwise, she moonlights as an editor for a literary magazine and tries to spend as much quality time as she can with friends and family. You can also connect with Rachel on Google+.


  1. Jenna Markowski

    This is an interesting (and timely) post, Rachel! I feel like everyone’s been talking about the Olympics on social media for months already. Honestly, I’m getting kind of tired of hearing about it and the events haven’t even started yet! I think all of the social media options are excellent for those who are interested in the Olympics, but I have a feeling that after a couple of days I’ll be sick of hearing about it. I might just even steer clear of social media until the events are over.

    Regardless, this is a nice overview of all the ways viewers can get involved! I didn’t know there were so many options available. Nice work!

    • Rachel

      It’s really overwhelming how much social media stuff there’s going to be for the Olympics! And yes, the degree to which it’s already been reported on is a bit crazy — I thought it’d be helpful to round up a few of the more interesting and useful tidbits. 🙂

      As for me, I’ll probably stick with my normal social media habits and see what comes of it. Thanks for commenting, Jenna!

  2. Eric

    One thing I admire about the IOC is the fact they do not, and I mean absolutely do not, mess around when it comes to keeping firm on rules. Now, on the other hand, I can’t see it possible to single-out persons shooting video with a cell phone (as opposed to someone simply lining-up and focusing a snapshot). Would require manpower almost exclusively devoted to that task, and that task alone.

    Apps are a great tool, and nowadays, if you want to be considered a respectable business, you better have one, and have one that’s easy to use. With millions of international travelers, how handy would it be for them to assemble information on sightseeing, food, places to stay, all that? That, actually, would be brilliant.

    Also…you did it! 🙂 Glad to see this one got posted before this shindig gets started later in the week. Great post, Rachel!

    • Rachel

      Yes, the IOC has always been very strict upholding the values of the Olympics — which is great! But I cannot fathom how they expect to stop millions of people from uploading personal videos from the Games to the Internet. It’ll be interesting to see how that unfolds. 🙂

      As for sightseeing/tourism apps, according to this, there’s a London travel guide app by Lonely Planet that’s free to download until the end of the month, all in the name of the Olympics. So there are definitely companies jumping on these tourism opportunities! 🙂

      Thanks, Eric, for reading and commenting!

  3. amy

    I’m following Lolo Jones (@lolojones) on Twitter right now after I read about her and her story. She’s awesome and a total inspiration for everyone, love her! I usually don’t watch the track/running events but because of her I will be sure to set my DVR to check it out. I think that’s the biggest draw of having athletes tweet, even though I will never meet her in person, I feel like I know so much about her and I kinda, sorta have this connection to her. Brands could learn a lot from this 😉

    I’m looking most forward to the women’s gymnastic events (random, but one of the alternates for the US team went to my high school and graduated a year before me. It’d be great to see her, but maybe not for the person she’s subbing for, lol!) and men’s swimming.

    Great post, Rachel! I hope someone out there analyzes all the data and traffic during the events, wonder which one gets the most?

    • Rachel

      Many of the Olympic athletes are great examples of personal branding done right, definitely!

      So cool about the girl from your high school! Somebody who graduated from my high school a year or two earlier than me almost made it to the women’s swimming team a few years ago … would have been neat to see her, but oh well. I think I agree with you — I’m looking forward to gymnastics and swimming the most, though there are lots of other events I like to watch, too. 🙂

      Interesting, your question about social media traffic. My guess is that Facebook and Twitter — and Youtube, if you count that as social media — will be the biggest traffic-generators. It’ll be neat to see how everything plays out, for sure.

      • Cybernetic SAM

        You weren’t kidding about Lolo Jones! Wow! And she is a Midwest Girl!

  4. Jana Quinn

    Wow, Rachel, I had no idea that there were so many official social media apps and platforms that would be hosting information about the Games. It will be interesting to see how well the pictures-are-okay-but-no-video rule holds up; I imagine it would be difficult to enforce. I also wonder what the reasoning is.

    I’m sure every single Olympic Games event will sell out every time (based on exclusivity and prominence, but I have no real data to support this), so it’s not like people will stay home if they’re live streaming the event. Also, many are likely to be televised, so why does it matter if others take video with their phones or cameras? Interesting stuff indeed.

    Thanks for all the info. I know I’m a bad American, because I’m not interested in the games, but if I might be able to get highlights through some kind of social media outlet, maybe I’ll keep my eye out. Thanks!

    • Rachel

      I think the reasoning behind the no-video rule has a lot to do with broadcasting rights and advertising. NBC has spent a TON of money to get exclusive U.S. broadcasting rights for the Olympics, as have various other companies around the world. And then advertisers spend even more money to buy TV spots and sponsorships during programming that is guaranteed to get enormous ratings and be seen by millions of people. So, probably the IOC, NBC, advertisers, etc. don’t like the idea of people watching personal videos for coverage instead of going to official outlets. Which is also why you have to confirm your cable or satellite subscription before you can watch live coverage online.

      All that being said, though, I don’t think personal videos would take away from official coverage, at least not in any significant way. It’ll be interesting to see how much amateur footage crops up, even with the IOC’s guidelines, and how popular that footage actually becomes.

      And hey, you’re not a bad American — and your free time for the next two and a half weeks won’t be entirely eaten up by sports you never knew you cared about, unlike some of us, haha. 🙂 Thanks for commenting, Jana!

    • Amanda

      I get it Jana–my family have never been ones to follow the Olympics either. I wouldn’t mind watching a couple events if I happen to notice them on tv, but I won’t go out of my way to watch any event in particular.

      Rachel–I think it’s very interesting that this is considered the first social media olympics. 900 million on FB–that’s nuts! I get it though–FB is the only social media platform that has stuck for me. I’ve tried pinterest and twitter, but they just don’t keep me coming back for more–in fact, I’m pretty sure I deactivated both…lol. And I’m sure with not being a follower of the Olympics, I’ll hear all I need to about them via FB. Thanks for keeping us all up to date on what’s going on!! Sometimes I feel like without this blog, I would be under that rock more often than not. 😉

      • Rachel

        I’ve had similar experiences with Twitter and Pinterest, though I do still visit each platform occasionally. And yes, I imagine we’ll all see plenty of Olympics updates on Facebook! 🙂 Happy to hear the blog post helped keep you informed. Thanks for commenting, Amanda!

  5. Cybernetic SAM

    Well loving all things anglo I am super excited the Olympics are in London this time, I just wish I could be there! All the Facebook Explore London stuff is really neat. I think this the first time we are really going to see history being made with the explosion of social media and the Olympics. This is so overwhelming to even try to imagine how complex and amazing all the behind the scenes stuff that happens to make this social media interaction happen.

    This is an awesome display of how frackin’ great technology really is, by bringing the world together. I for one am so excited about the live streaming I do not have a smart phone or cable so having it live streamed is going to be nothing short of amazing! Though I won’t be able to take advantage of all the social media platforms, what I can is still going to WOW me. Not to mention the availability this allows so much more of the world! Greta Post!

    • Cybernetic SAM

      Can I also mention I love the way they have indexed so cleanly all the facebook! I thought I was going to get lost but they did an awesome job!

      • Rachel

        Well, if you don’t have cable, I don’t think the live streaming will work, since you need to confirm a cable or satellite subscription to access that stuff on NBC’s website … 🙁 I hope you find a way to make it work, though! And yes, Facebook’s index of Olympics pages is quite streamlined, which makes life a lot easier. Thanks for commenting, Sam!

  6. Mandy Kilinskis

    Unlikely the majority of the people in this comments section, I am SUPER excited for the Olympics.

    I’m planning to watch a ton of the games on TV or streaming online, I’m going to follow the different events on Twitter, and I will have to refrain from posting updates on Facebook/Twitter/whatever every two minutes. I realize that not everyone is as geared up as I am, and I don’t want to annoy my friends and followers.

    But I will be DVRing all of the swimming. And gymnastics. And probably the USA soccer games.

    • Rachel

      Olympics WHOO! 🙂 If you do end up posting online updates every two minutes, I would not be annoyed, haha.

      Swimming and gymnastics are on my must-see list, too. Soccer not so much … I remember enjoying women’s volleyball during the last Summer Olympics, though, so I’ll probably make a point of watching that again, too. And diving. And table tennis, because that’s awesome. Really, I’m easy — I’ll watch whatever’s on. 🙂 Though with all this live-streaming stuff, I’ll probably be overwhelmed by the choices!

  7. Jeff Porretto

    This post couldn’t have been more timely, Rachel. Personally, the Social Media aspect of these particular Olympics doesn’t excite me all that much. But I’m at least smart enough to know that it is a HUGE deal with HUGE implications.

    Check this out, Greece just expelled one of their Olympians for her tweets:

    • Rachel

      I heard about that! Yeah, the Olympics take their values very seriously, and they’re not afraid to dole out punishment, it seems. Hopefully there won’t be more stories like that one, though perhaps that’s too much to expect of human nature … 🙂

      Here’s hoping you enjoy this year’s Olympics, even if the social media aspect isn’t your thing! Thanks for commenting, Jeff. 🙂

  8. Twitterholic

    I like reading through a post that can make people think.
    Also, thanks for allowing for me to comment!

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