Sochi 2014: Will social media foil Putin's grand Winter Olympics plan?

Story highlights

  • Russia will host the Winter Olympics for the first time in February 2014
  • Gay rights will be one of the background issues for the competition
  • Sochi organizers tackling the challenge of using, and dealing with, social media
  • Lessons to learn from London 2012, which generated huge volumes of online traffic

With 150 million tweets across 16 days, and 80,000 a minute when Usain Bolt won his 200 meters title, plus 1 billion official page impressions on Facebook, the London 2012 Olympics was crowned as the "first social media Games."

But what impact will Sochi's Winter Olympics have next February?

Will Vladimir Putin's grand plan to transform an ailing region, using sport to make a bold statement of intent -- as China did with its Olympics in 2008 and Qatar hopes to do with soccer's World Cup in 2020 -- be derailed by increasingly web savvy activist groups?

The Winter Olympics traditionally lacks the superstar athletes who can match Bolt's worldwide appeal, and the scope of its sports is smaller in size as well as profile.

However, Russia's first hosting of the four-yearly competition has already drawn global attention.

There have been howls of protest at the country's new so-called anti-gay legislation and raised eyebrows at the colossal $50 billion (and rising) cost of turning a faded Black Sea resort into a high-tech host venue.

The world is waiting to see how Russia, and the International Olympic Committee, will cope with potential contraventions of rules and regulations designed to protect a wide range of interests from political to the commercial -- the main conduit of which is expected to be social media.

Read: Russian law sparks 'defining civil rights movement'

"The 2014 Games are likely to be very tightly policed," says sports business expert Simon Chadwick, "because of the way in which the IOC tries to protect its commercial partners, but also potentially because of the way in which the Russian government will seek to minimize dissent and the threats posed by, for example, sponsorship ambushers.

"Vancouver 2010 showed how vigilant the authorities can be in policing the Games, and one would expect to see comparable levels of vigilance being exercised in Sochi too."

A new code

That view is shared by Nikolay Peshin, Pro-Rector for Research at the newly-inaugurated Russian International Olympic University in Sochi.

"Social networks can act as one, but I think the organizers of the Games, and the government and international organizations, will do everything to preserve the atmosphere of the sports festival," he told CNN.

Read: Athletics chief - 'No problem' with Russia's anti-gay laws

"Last year, the IOC issued a 'code of behavior in social networks and the internet' for athletes. And just five years ago there were no such rules. It means that the IOC is trying to keep up with the rapidly evolving media landscape and to protect itself," adds Peshin, whose university is helping to train Sochi staff for the Games.

Russia has already had a taste of how hard it is to control an Internet phenomenon.

When two of its female athletes were pictured kissing on the podium at last month's world track and field championships in Moscow -- apparently in defiance of the Kremlin's legislation banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors" -- the image went viral on the web.

Despite protests from the athletes themselves, and video evidence clearly showing the photo was a distortion of what was, in reality, a brief peck on the cheek, its spread could not be contained.

Lessons from London?

As well as the sporting highs, London 2012 also had its controversies -- with critics targeting security issues, cost over-runs, ticketing fiascos, empty seats, problems with national flags and a debate over the merits of a memorial for the 1972 Munich massacre.

"There were guerrilla theater productions, staged to mock the sponsors' involvement with the Olympic cultural program," says journalist and academic Andy Miah, who will be covering his eighth Olympics at Sochi.

Read: Bolt wins London 2012 social media race

"There were fake websites that looked exactly like the organizing committee's website. There were even t-shirts with 'official protester' written on them, using the logo of London 2012. Each of these campaigns had a life online first and this is the sort of approach we can expect from protesters with limited resources."

Sochi, in terms of its online presence at least, "will punch beyond its weight" according to Miah -- who says the 2014 organizers are already ahead of the British capital with their social media strategies.

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"Their CEO, Dmitry Chernyshenko, has been active on Twitter since very early on -- he even has one account in English and another in Russian," Miah told CNN.

"His equivalent at London 2012, Seb Coe, was not engaged at all and this really affected how London's assets were syndicated. His account was followed by thousands of people, but nearly nothing was shared.

"His account could have given much-needed visibility to some of the less well-known parts of the Olympic program. It was really a lost opportunity."

Nonetheless, the IOC expects to build on the higher social media profile that London provided.

"We have inherited a massive fan base of over 4 million people," its head of social media, Alex Huot, told CNN. "This will help us raise the visibility of Olympians across social networks during and post Games.

"Looking back, the IOC total fan base at the Opening Ceremony at the Vancouver 2010 Games was 1 million. By Sochi 2014 we should be close to 30 million."

Bloggers welcome

Miah, who will be covering both the sporting and wider issues in Sochi, is excited by the social media possibilities ahead.

"The organizing committee has really supported independent bloggers and social media generally," he says.

"A large project called 'Sochi Reporter' was really active in the early years and I think we can expect to see social media at the heart of this Games.

"The independent media center is even open to applications from bloggers. They actually have a distinct category. This is really progress. It didn't happen in Vancouver, so you could say that Russia is ahead of Canada in this respect."

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While Sochi may struggle to generate the sheer volume of Internet traffic that London did, it is well placed to capitalize on the relatively "immature" arena of social media, says Chadwick -- a professor at England's Coventry University.

"As users, consultants, brands and organizations become more social media savvy, then we should expect to see more sophisticated usage of it emerging," Chadwick, who is visiting Russian universities this month to research their sports management programs and scout for future partnerships, told CNN.

Read: How hashtags and likes shaped London 2012

"This is particularly likely in Russia, as the country is growing rapidly, the middle class is growing and some have described Russia (specifically Moscow) as one of the most sophisticated retail environments in the world."

Think global, act social

Russia, like many countries, has its own social media platforms to rival U.S.-based multinationals Facebook and Twitter.

"As we have seen in countries like China (with Sina) and Japan (with Mixi), the dominance of sites like Facebook and Twitter can no longer be assumed," Chadwick says.

"At the moment, users and consumers in countries like Russia are often patriotic in their social media use, and also like the way in which native platforms more directly appeal to them."

Russia's version of Facebook, VKontakte -- or VK as it is usually called -- is one of its most popular websites and also runs in English and Ukrainian.

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"It has millions of registered users," says Peshin. "Sure, Twitter and Facebook are popular, but not as much as the 'home' network.

"The most popular Russian social networks are already hard at promoting the Sochi Olympics. VKontakte has launched for online gamers a new Sochi 2014 application."

Read: Welcome to the Twitter Olympics

Celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Shakira and Kevin Spacey are among those who promote themselves on VK's English language platform.

"One thing that will be interesting to watch is how live translation will affect the global village of social media," Miah told CNN.

"Until now, we have pretty much lived in language silos but, increasingly, platforms have an auto-translate system that works pretty well.

"It still might be too early, but I think this will allow many more people to understand how locals are experiencing the Games, in their own words.

"I am surprised that Sochi 2014 have not developed a live translation app. This would have been a cool thing.

"Imagine an Olympic tourist from Japan walking up to an Olympic volunteer, not being able to speak any other language -- if the volunteer could say something in Russian into their mobile phone and it played back a translation in Japanese, this would be huge!"

Tech Games?

Miah is hoping to see innovative use of Google Glass -- the search-engine giant's foray into next-level hands-free tech.

"I think we can expect to see some fun stuff taking place with wearable technology, particularly Google Glass. This is likely to be showcased at the Games by some athletes. I'm still trying to get hold of some!" he says.

"We will surely see some innovation around how sponsors associate themselves with the Games too. I think we'll see the sports using social media more, too."

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A lot of athletes were prominent on social media at London 2012. For some, such as sprint star Bolt, it just added to their golden glory and was an extension to their marketing reach and personal brand building.

Read: Australian swim team 'was toxic'

But for others, such as the under-performing Australian swim team, over-engagement online was seen as being detrimental to performance.

Miah also points to teenage British diver Tom Daley, who allowed himself to be drawn into angry arguments on Twitter after being abused by trolls following a disappointing performance -- though he bounced back to win a bronze medal.

"It would have gone unnoticed, but Tom retweeted it and made a comment. Within hours, the web was fixated on this and it became a real issue. It's reasonable to go after abusive trolls, but doing so may affect so many other things about how the Games is experienced."

However, Miah says social media such as Twitter can be very important for younger athletes, especially when they find themselves alone in foreign surroundings and in need of support from friends and family.

A fine line

In Russia, competitors will have to be careful what they post online about sensitive issues such as gay rights -- the IOC has strict rules about "no political statements."

Two Swedish athletes caused controversy at last month's World Track and Field Championships in Moscow by wearing rainbow-colored fingernails -- one proudly posted the evidence on Instagram.

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American runner Nick Symmonds, meanwhile, followed up his post-race denouncement of Russia's anti-gay legislation by tweeting a picture of himself meeting with the Russian LGBT sports federation.

He had refused to say anything publicly before his 800 meters race, in which he won silver, due to fears he might be arrested.

Read: Isinbayeva defends Russia's anti-gay propaganda law

"Sochi 2014 will be a watershed in terms of how organizers react to open media platforms in future Games," Miah says.

"We will definitely see some controversies around gay rights take center stage, especially as I think a lot of athletes will feel strongly about this.

"The IOC prohibits political protest but it's hard to see how the new law in Russia does not infringe its own charter, which guarantees freedom from discrimination.

"It's still really unclear what kind of action Russia would take if a foreign athlete takes a stand on this matter, especially as they themselves may feel persecuted by this law. That's the key difference compared with China's 2008 Games, the only recent comparison.

"Gay athletes competing at the Games will feel personally implicated in this and I would not be surprised if we see at least one competing athlete take a stand. It may be subtle, but it will be there."

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Huot says IOC will not "police" athletes' social media activities, but will "educate" them.

"We don't police but rather work through education and engagement so athletes and others at the Games know about our best practices," he told CNN.

Let's talk about this

Miah says Sochi organizers, the IOC and the press cannot afford to "treat social media as just another broadcast channel."

"It isn't. It is a conversation among thousands of people and, in the same way that you wouldn't issue a press release during a conversation, you shouldn't do so on social media," he says.

"Organizations have to be fluid, responsive, open and respectful, even recognizing that issues are controversial and that resolution may be beyond them.

"We can expect to see much more use of social media commentaries within traditional media. Tweets from celebrities end up being the direct quotes used by broadcasters and I think we can expect to see a lot more of this during Sochi."

However, it seems unlikely that social media will be able to bring about social change in Russia during Sochi 2014.

"Given the prominent role that the state plays in Russia, it is entirely feasible that we will see a much more interventionist and regulatory stance being taken by the government," says Chadwick.

VK, which refused to take down anti-government content posted on its website by opposition parties after the 2011 elections, is now 48% owned by Ilya Shcherbovich -- who sits on the board of state-owned oil company Transneft.

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However, Peshin does not believe that the Kremlin can truly control social media in Russia.

"The government is mighty, but the network is an elusive thing," he says. "You can destroy it, of course, but to take over the control -- I'm not sure."

And while the authorities will be able to tightly restrict activities within the Olympics site -- there will be an exclusion zone around the resort for non-accredited traffic from January to March -- there is still latitude for "virtual" protests, says Miah.

"Social media is the only vehicle through which protest is noticed, and campaigns are getting more and more sophisticated and organized," he says.

"Physical space isn't what it used to be. If someone wants to occupy the geographical position of the main stadium, they can, using digital technology.

"While someone may own the physical space, nobody owns the GPS location and we could see people 'occupying' venues out of protest. This kind of story can really grab the attention of the world's media."

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