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Olympic officials ban athletes from online storytelling

Industry Standard

(IDG) -- U.S. Olympic athletes have been convening in San Diego during the past few weeks for "team processing." This includes receiving credentials for this month's Summer Games in Sydney, Australia, being photographed and fingerprinted. It also includes learning the do's and don'ts of Olympic competition: no steroids, no wearing branded clothing of unauthorized sponsors when receiving medals, and this year, no Web diaries.

The ban is stated in Rule 59 of the Olympic Code of Conduct, an International Olympic Committee document that all athletes must sign before competing in the Games. Rule 59 states that an Olympic athlete is not permitted to record his thoughts of his Olympic experience and have it posted on the Internet. Doing so would be tantamount to an athlete acting as a journalist, the IOC has determined. And that is grounds for being thrown out of the Games. Each athlete must sign the conduct code before boarding a plane for the Summer Games.

The ban has athletes buzzing. Personal athlete Web sites are becoming a common part of an Olympic athlete's entourage, alongside strength and conditioning coaches and personal publicists. The sites come in all shapes and sizes, from crudely static pages adorned with a few photos to virtual athlete biographies filled with press archives and bulletin boards. Some athletes believe a personal Web site is the best way of corresponding with well-wishers and friends back home. Other amateur athletes hope to parlay an entertaining Web site, along with some Olympic victories, into endorsement deals down the line.

"I found the whole thing pretty offensive," says Matthew Taylor, a member of the U.S. Olympic canoe/kayak team. He added the USOC gave him vague declarations about the Internet restrictions, but failed to answer the critical questions: Will the ban be enforced and what's the penalty to the athlete? "They [the USOC] were cautioning us to take the path of least resistance and to abandon our plans of using the Net as a device to communicate with family, friends and sponsors."

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Rule 59 is not new, but the Net diary ban is, says Bob Condron, director of media services for the USOC. The initial mandate was devised in 1992 by the IOC, which determined that athletes could only write diaries for their local newspaper while at the Games. But the rule was never updated to include diaries that could be posted on the Internet -- either via the local newspaper's site or by the athlete's personal site.

"The IOC doesn't have a black-and-white policy where hometown papers have a Web site," Condron says. "It's very simple. But it's turning into 10 miles of gray matter."

And so, lacking a clear Internet policy, Olympics organizers have asked the athletes to refrain from posting their thoughts in a diary format. And for good measure, they've included this measure in the conduct code.

What happens if an Olympic athlete defies the conduct code and posts a Web diary? Probably nothing, Condron says. But the IOC may not be so forgiving. The Toronto Star reported this week that the IOC has ordered Canadian swimmer Mark Johnston to stop posting e-mail messages on that newspaper's Web site; Johnson had been using the paper to discuss his chances for Olympic gold in Sydney.

According to Olympics organizers, the purpose of the rule is to keep the athletes from using a Web site to break news about their themselves or their fellow athletes. The organizers are taking every precaution they can to ensure that their broadcast partners, which have paid $1.32 billion for exclusive TV rights, don't get scooped by the Net. (According to the USOC, the ban would pertain even to the officially sanctioned sites such as NBCOlympics.com or Olympics.com.)

Says Condron: "We're saying, 'Look, do your personal Web sites. Do your hometown stuff. Just don't act as a journalist, and it's not going to be a problem.'"

But such counseling has only caused more confusion. Does this mean Nike-endorsed athlete Michael Johnson cannot write something for Nike.com? "In theory, no," Condron says. "One of the things we're telling our athletes if there are any questions -- if it's Nike or Speedo or somebody -- just be interviewed." In other words, if the text is a question and answer format rather than a personal diary, than that's not likely to raise a flag, said Condron.

For many athletes, preserving their Web sites is a battle not worth fighting. Michael Bennett, the ex-inmate-turned U.S. heavyweight boxer, has a site called Bennettboxing.com. As Bennett's touching bad-kid-gone-good story has received more media attention (he recently appeared on the Today Show and was featured in an ESPN The Magazine article), his site has been attracting a loyal following. His pro-bono publicist Trayce Zimmerman had been hoping to get Bennett to supply regular reports from Sydney, but now she's not so sure it's worth it. Her worst fear: Any violation of the conduct code, even as seemingly benign as posting a personal story on the Web, could jeopardize his boxing status for the Games. And, therefore, she figures, Bennett will sign any agreement he sees if it means he can board a plane to go to Sydney.

"I don't think he's going to say, 'I'm not signing this until my lawyer sees it.' And I'm sure a lot of athletes are like that. They're more interested in boxing or swimming or whatever [than violating an Olympic rule]," she says.

The IOC has been down playing the Net's ambiguous status in Sydney. There's a conference in Switzerland in December in which most of these issues are expected to be sorted out. But that will be too late for Bennett and his Olympic teammates.




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