The London Games became a global social-media conversation, connecting fans with athletes and each other as never before. That's a major reason why Olympic popularity is trending upward
This is an article from the Aug. 20, 2012 issue
YOU CAN tell an Olympics by its medalists, and the London Games will be remembered for the multiple garlands of Jamaica's Usain Bolt and Great Britain's Mo Farah, as well as Americans such as Michael Phelps, Allyson Felix and the members of the championship women's basketball and soccer teams. But there's a story in the medals themselves, which came embossed with a lattice of lines—rays that, according to the designer, represent the athletes' efforts. Like the matrix of a social-media platform, they were meant to radiate in two directions, pulling in and reaching out.
The 2012 Olympics resembled just such a web of connectivity. Over 17 days all kinds of barriers melted away. In the upper-crust sport of equestrian, two golds went to a former stable hand, Charlotte Dujardin of Great Britain. Fixing Ireland's Katie Taylor with a hug after she won a boxing gold in the lightweight division was her country's most famous fighter, Barry McGuigan, who had initially opposed women taking up the sport. Chad le Clos of South Africa had first idolized, then emulated, Phelps—and then beat him in the U.S. star's signature event, the 200-meter butterfly. Last Saturday night, after completing the finishing leg in the men's 4 √ó 100 relay to win his third gold of the Games, Bolt formed an M with his hands, borrowing Farah's signature gesture, the Mo-bot, out of respect for the British runner, who an hour earlier had added a gold in the 5,000 meters to the one he earned a week before in the 10,000.
So it went: After U.S. gymnast Aly Raisman told the Duchess of Cambridge how much she loved her fashion sense, the former Kate Middleton told Raisman how much she loved the team's leotards, and we all for a moment could imagine such a thing as a universal human closet.
No moment weltered out in as many directions as David Rudisha's world record on Aug. 9 in the 800 meters, a mark that London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) chairman Sebastian Coe had held for 16 years. Coe calls the 800 "the most difficult race to get right." Rudisha, a Masai from Kenya, took all the complexity out of it with a bald sprint from the start, then entrusted a crowd swollen with Coe's track-loving compatriots to take him to the tape. "I wanted to come here and make him proud," said Rudisha. Moments later Bolt had won his second gold medal, in the 200 meters, but he made sure not to do any interviews until after the end of the Kenyan national anthem.
From Coe to Rudisha to Bolt, and back—and then out, to unknowable billions around the world whom Coe and LOCOG had targeted with their slogan, Inspire a generation. That ambition had once seemed grandiose, but by Sunday's closing ceremony, an old-home night of British pop stars, it appeared much less so. "I've always wanted to inspire people," said Gabby Douglas, the first African-American to win an individual gymnastics gold medal. "This quote, 'Inspire a generation'—I can check that off my bucket list."
Inspiration isn't about medals per se, Coe believes, least of all how many one's own athletes win. "Moments are what people tend to remember," he says, "and that's what I believe is the driver of sports participation." The home team delivered plenty of moments and medals. Within a week the front page of The Sun went from WANTED: GOLD MEDAL to UNITED BLINGDOM. Instead of justifying failures for which the country had girded itself, the British suddenly found themselves having to explain a string of successes, including a haul of nine medals (seven of them gold) in the Velodrome. To French insinuations that something about this wasn't cricket, British cycling chief Dave Brailsford puckishly cited his bikes' "specially round wheels," which had been manufactured in France, by the way.
IF THE Games could be distilled to a single character, @ would be it. The number of Twitter users worldwide had grown exponentially in the four years since the Beijing Olympics, and the International Olympic Committee's director of social media, Alex Huot, promised that London would deliver "the biggest online conversation in Olympic history." Twitter complied, moving nearly six million Games-related tweets a day. But the Lords of the Rings discouraged members of delegations from reporting or commenting on other athletes or sports, and flatly prohibited anyone from mentioning personal sponsors, in accordance with the IOC's Rule 40, which is designed to protect the Games' big-ticket underwriters. That led to what quickly became known as the Olympic Spring, an athlete-driven Twitter protest under the hashtag #WeDemandChange. Those who think they can control social media don't really get social media, and if the IOC's Athletes Commission has any power, Rule 40 figures to be in for a hard look before the next two Olympics, in Sochi and Rio de Janeiro.
The Olympic Spring faded, but Twitter left its impact throughout. It culled the Olympic herd, as Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou and Swiss soccer player Michel Morganella were expelled for racist posts. It affected the men's cycling road race, as fans using the service on mobile devices interfered with the race's timing and GPS systems. It provided an alibi to Australian backstroker Emily Seebohm, a gold medal favorite who blamed her silver on a failure to get off Twitter and other social media and "into my own mind." Sometimes it simply offered postscripts to headlines, from Blind drunk at the minute (posted by British men's cycling time-trial gold medalist @BradWiggins) to a photo of the fastest man in the world in the Olympic Village at 3 a.m. with three Swedish women's handball players (@usainbolt).
Twitter even addressed the London Games' one glaring shortcoming, the allocation and distribution of tickets. After a few days marked by swaths of empty seats, someone started an account called @OlympicSeat to send up the situation with such musings as "I feel so empty." As organizers fitfully dribbled out additional tickets, a British computer geek designed a program that checked the LOCOG website every three minutes and tweeted out an alert each time a new batch became available. Organizers soon shut the program down for fear that it would empower scalpers, but not before a lesson emerged for organizers of future Olympics: What a bureaucracy can't get right, an unfettered information market can.
Of course, Twitter had its Olympic trolls and controversies. Saudi conservatives angered by the participation of female judoka Wojdan Shaherkhani and middle-distance runner Sarah Attar tweeted to a hashtag that translated from Arabic to "prostitutes of the Olympics." But Twitter accommodates a backlash to every provocation, and in a kind of digital judo move, Shaherkhani's supporters posted to the same hashtag, ultimately overwhelming the conversation with their point of view. When British diver Tom Daley retweeted a hostile message that accused him of letting his late father down with a fourth-place finish in synchronised 10-meter platform, Daley picked up hundreds of thousands of new followers, a phalanx of sympathizers who probably helped him win bronze in the 10-meter platform 12 days later.
Guy Adams, the U.S.-based correspondent for Britain's The Independent, had his Twitter account shut down after he ripped NBC's tape-delayed coverage and tweeted out the e-mail address of a network executive so others could sound off. Twitter quickly apologized and reinstated Adams, but users questioned Twitter's commitment to free speech, especially in light of the company's Olympic marketing partnership with NBC. The U.S. broadcast rights holder highlighted a paradox: Many viewers disliked the patronizing control of its prime-time package. Yet NBC's ratings were up overall, and viewing among teenagers increased 27% compared with Beijing.
All of this suggests that the second-screen experience has become a generational norm, with a telecast simply the raw material. Yet to the cohort of Americans who turned #NBCFail into a trending hashtag and claim that North Korea is the only other country where the men's 100-meter final wasn't shown live, tape delays are an affront. "A tape-delayed broadcast isn't an immersive experience that you can fully share," says Mark McClusky, who covered the Olympics for Wired. "NBC was depriving people of the ability to interact with the rest of the world in real time."
The IOC has fretted for years over its graying TV audience. The introduction of BMX and beach volleyball is an attempt to reverse that trend. Now, thanks to Twitter, a new generation seems to be falling for the Olympics, only not out of nationalistic interest. London seduced the Twitterati because users could connect—with a Jamaican sprinter and with one another, as some 26 world championships engaging more than 10,000 athletes from 205 countries unfolded.
The next Summer Games host, Rio, intends to poke more holes in the membranes that London made more permeable. Rio's eight-minute segment at the closing ceremony on Sunday featured Renato Sorriso, a street sweeper who, while pushing a broom in the Sambadrome between acts during Carnaval in 1997, broke spontaneously into a dance of his own. The crowd went nuts, and Sorriso became the most celebrated street sweeper in the world. He represents what the Olympics aspire to be: a stage where someone literally off the street can become a star. "England knows multiculturalism well," says Daniela Thomas, a Carioca who was one of the artistic directors of the segment. "But in Brazil we've been embracing and intermingling for centuries. We hug and we touch. We take things, and with our spirit we remix them. We're like deejays."
FOR SEVEN YEARS Sebastian Coe and Adrian Warner, a reporter for BBC London, have neither hugged nor touched. From the moment London landed the Games in 2005, Warner would reliably call LOCOG to account for every shortfall, from ticketing to security to transport. At a press briefing last week, once it became clear that London would pull the damn thing off, the two renewed their verbal fencing one last time.
"Seb," Warner began, "there have been some quite shocking reports of people talking spontaneously to each other on the Underground, and of people smiling at each other who don't know each other and saying, 'Good morning.'"
Coe didn't miss a beat: "Adrian, I would like to unreservedly apologize to you for that outburst of camaraderie on the tube."
Apology mode is the British default setting, with "sorry" a comforting mantra. But for more than a fortnight the Brits suppressed that strain in themselves long enough to act confidently as hosts. And though the U.S. wound up atop the table with 104 medals, 46 of them gold, Britain blew past its target of 48 to claim 65. As a result, 33 more Brits now call themselves Olympic champions.
Of that spirit—spontaneous warmth marbled with sporting success—Coe shared one more wish. The way he put it had a faintly stuffy ring, but it's a sentiment that applies as much to the Olympics at large as to Britain and the three-time host city by the Thames: "Long may it remain."
Fourteen SI writers reflect on the most memorable scenes and events from the London Games at SI.com/olympics