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Social Media Sports Stars


When the Olympic Organising Committee stated in its strategic communications plan that “citizens who publish content on the web are ultimately the ones who will define the success of the Games”, they were no doubt confident that engagement would reach record levels and hoped that popular content would influence mainstream news coverage. It appeared that they were relinquishing control.

But then came the strict guidelines imposed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on the use of moving images such as GIFs and Vines in a bid to clamp down on highlights being shared by non-rights holders. It should have meant a GIF shaped hole in social media content, which we thought would be a tragedy when the likes of Bolt offer such camera perfect poses.

Just a few days in and the rules were broken. Just when we were all waiting for Bolt, the #PhelpsFace meme went viral and so far, is possibly the most notable image of the Olympics. Not quite what the IOC had in mind we’re sure.

While some content creators who published versions of the meme have had accounts shutdown for unauthorised use of official hashtags, many of those who shared #PhelpsFace have gone unpunished. Perhaps this is a part admission by the IOC that social media is now too big a beast to control in the way mainstream media traditionally has been at the Games?

Six days in to the competition and the official social media accounts for the Rio Olympics have a following of over 5.2 million, surpassing that of London 2012. This is perhaps in no small part thanks to the fact that many of the athletes themselves are millennials; social media’s largest user group who quite openly share their daily training routines, successes and celebrations with their followers.

So is it fair to say that the Rio Games are the Olympics of social media? With the likes of the USA swim team spoofing the hugely popular Carpool Karaoke and Usain Bolt signing up to Snapchat just 10 days ago, it’s clear that athletes are taking their content seriously, and that the power of social media in helping make sports stars into media superstars is huge. Before they’ve even hit the water or track, athletes are making a name for themselves when, in games gone by, the medals and the finish times did the talking.

It will be interesting to see whether the social media superstars of these Olympics enjoy superstar status in the field and what that means for them as personalities post Rio. Even more interesting, however, will be what the organising committee decides ahead of the 2020 Games once they’ve assessed the damage caused by web content that ‘defined the success of the Games’.


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