From triumph to scandal: Olympians in the social media spotlight

Australian swimmer Stephanie Rice posted bikini photos of herself to Twitter recently, sparking criticism.

Story highlights

  • Australian swimmer Stephanie Rice was criticized for recent Twitter photos
  • Other athletes have drawn fire for posts and photos that have popped up online
  • Social media has given Olympic athletes direct access to the public, leading to controversy
  • The U.S. Olympic Committee encourages athletes to use social media, with restrictions

Did you know that Olympic track hopeful Lolo Jones is a virgin on the prowl for a date? Or that British swimmer Rebecca Adlington quit Twitter because meanies kept insulting her looks? The dirt that years ago would have been lost in the fray of the Olympic Games is now at the top of your Facebook feed.

In the lead-up to major sporting events, media have traditionally churned out human interest stories highlighting a softer side of the people we put on pedestals for their athletic prowess. We learn about their families, the obstacles they've overcome, their grueling diet and training regimen.

In the last few years however, with the rise of tabloid and citizen journalism, and of course social media, the story lines have changed. Now we read anecdotes about athletes deemed "too fat" for competition by Olympic bosses, no less. The human interest stories are still there, but as an information-obsessed population, our interests seem to have changed.

As the lines of communication open up, the pressure to maintain a squeaky clean code of conduct increases, says professor David Rowe of the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Western Sydney. Athletes unfamiliar with this pressure may find themselves under the microscope for what seems like a harmless joke.

U.S. track and field star Lolo Jones.

Australian swimmer Stephanie Rice is no stranger to social media controversies. Last week, she tweeted a photo of herself wearing a low-cut bikini, a birthday gift from designer Ellie Gonsalves. The risqué shot drew instant criticism in the Twitterverse; one follower even called for her to be dropped from the Olympic team.

This isn't the first time the gold medalist has found herself in hot water. In 2008, the then-20-year-old posted a picture of herself in a skin-tight navy blue police uniform to her Facebook account. And in 2010, she called the South African rugby team a homophobic slur on Twitter after they lost to Australia.

Representatives for Rice declined to comment for this report.

Rice's Twitter photos, along with shots that surfaced last month of male swimmers Nick D'Arcy and Kenrick Monk brandishing firearms at a gun shop, led Swimming Australia to release a statement asserting that it does not condone "the posting of inappropriate content on Facebook, Twitter or any social media platform."

Other Olympic athletes have gotten into trouble for compromising photos. Three years ago, eight-time gold medalist Michael Phelps acknowledged he'd engaged in some "inappropriate" behavior at a University of South Carolina party in 2008. Now-shuttered British tabloid News of the World published what it called exclusive photos of Phelps allegedly smoking marijuana from a bong.

In 2010, 22-year-old snowboarder Scotty Lago earned a bronze medal on the half-pipe in the Winter Games. Days later, TMZ.com posted photos of Lago in a bar, with his medal around his waist as a woman knelt in front of him with the medal in her mouth.

Team USA and the IOC were not impressed. Lago left the Olympic Village in Vancouver voluntarily.

Sports agent Evan Morgenstein, whose company has represented 150 Olympic athletes, is all too familiar with the pressures of social media and how a seemingly innocent prank or a private moment can turn into a scandal in seconds. It's all about how you control the damage, Morgenstein says.

A champion falls from grace, new contenders emerge for London at U.S. Olympic trials

"You have to understand how to handle the realities that come along with representing young athletes," he said. "Sometimes you don't address [the scandal] because there's always another news cycle, sometimes you have to."

Ten years ago, without TMZ or iPhones, the photos of Rice, Lago and Phelps probably wouldn't have seen a computer screen. That doesn't mean that scandals didn't exist back then, but now the evidence lives on in perpetuity.

To help keep athletes focused on the Games and avoid social media controversies, the International Olympic Committee distributed a social media handbook for athletes late last year. Athletes are limited in what they can share electronically.

Human to Hero: Stephanie Rice

    Just Watched

    Human to Hero: Stephanie Rice

Human to Hero: Stephanie Rice 02:57
PLAY VIDEO
Olympic rings on London's Tower Bridge

    Just Watched

    Olympic rings on London's Tower Bridge

Olympic rings on London's Tower Bridge 02:24
PLAY VIDEO
Poems rain down on London

    Just Watched

    Poems rain down on London

Poems rain down on London 03:00
PLAY VIDEO

Competitors can't post video of competition or from the Olympic Village; mention any corporate sponsorship or promotion (unless authorized by the IOC); or use any Olympic symbols such as the 5 interlocking rings or the word "Olympic."

Swimmer Mark Spitz, who in 1972 won a record-setting seven gold medals, recognizes that media attention can be overwhelming. "I found the best way to deal with the media was to keep everything in perspective and stay focused on your priorities," he says. His advice for young athletes is simple: "Make good decisions. .... It's easier said than done given the pressures that come with increased fame, but maintaining focus on the sport should do the trick."

The United States Olympic Committee sees social media as a positive, according to a statement the body released to CNN: "Social media is a fantastic opportunity for U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes to engage fans, expose new people to their sport and truly showcase the unique personalities that make up Team USA. ... We encourage athletes to participate in whatever way makes the most sense for them. At the end of the day, the more people that get to know America's finest athletes and the kind of people they are, the better."

Rowe, the University of Western Sydney professor, isn't surprised that the media can switch from deifying these athletes to reveling in their social media downfall: "There's no doubt there is a fantastic interest in the non-athletic performing aspects of sport," he said. "International media would rather dig the dirt on athletes who are celebrities."

He said that a lot of an athlete's life is about controlling image. But who holds the reins is changing: "Increasingly it's social media and tabloid media. Athletes and sports organizations are finding it more difficult to control the image than they used to. It used to be reasonably easier with a more compliant media."

Social media training is now a routine part of an athlete's preparations for the Games. Morgenstein, the sports agent, points out that a single tweet can "stick with an athlete for a very long time."

Racy photos and ill-advised comments can give the public the impression that, for athletes, the Games are all about "sex and McDonalds," he said. "There's a perception that once you get into the hallowed halls of the Olympic Village that all hell breaks loose." That's simply not true, he said.

Some spectators tune into Olympic coverage only for the drama, Rowe finds, which he likens to the German concept of "schadenfreude," or taking pleasure from another person's misfortune. "The bigger the celebrity, the bigger the scandal ... build 'em up and knock 'em down. Some people do take pleasure in watching an athlete fall from grace."

The Olympics were originally an amateur movement, Rowe said, and in the past, competitors didn't necessarily expect to get rich and famous. "Over the last 10 years, we've seen some Olympic athletes move up to that level. They're revered and reviled sometimes in equal measure because of their celebrity."

Do you think Olympic athletes should be held to a higher standard than other social media users? Share your opinion in the comments section below.