Olympic Trials

Twitter is Changing the Olympic Experience

8/2/2012

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

I was riding in a car when I saw Rowdy Gaines tweeted at me. “Love your quips, my friend! I may have to steal one of your quips for broadcast!” he wrote. Appropriately, I freaked out. Not necessarily from the fact he tweeted at me – though that in itself is very cool – but because here was a guy who was standing in front of millions (billions?) in the biggest stage of his professional career, and he was joking with me over Twitter. It was immensely flattering, and it was a testament to how nice and approachable a guy Rowdy really is.

Twitter is profoundly altering and changing the Olympic viewing experience. We had been warned about “The Twitter Olympics.” Meaning, the Games where consumption of media changes from print/article to social media/instant gratification. Through NBC tape delays, in a strange way, Twitter helps keep the excitement going. Even during tape delay broadcasts, and long afterwards. The ability not only to interact with Olympians and Olympic coaches (USA Swimming’s twitter account has a list of all the Olympic swimmers you can subscribe to) – but also with each other.

Every night before the NBC broadcast (both live and taped) thousands of swim fans sit in front of laptops or smart phones and tweet. They talk swimming. Talk shop. Talk the splits, talk the swimmers, talk the sport. And talking about swimming is always a good thing. It somewhat feels like sitting in a bar or living room and commenting on the meet to others. Like a giant chat room.

Why is this profound with swimming?

Swimming is unlike mainstream sports. Football and basketball have “gathering places.” Tailgates, stadiums, bars, and restaurants. Places with big screen TVs that host all day viewing events. These are the places football and “mainstream sport” fans have offered, nearly every Saturday and Sunday.

With swimming, “gathering places” are limited. The Grand Prixs have done a great job bringing big names to meets around the country and building excitement throughout the swim season. Nationals are also wonderful for those who can afford to make the trip. But swimming is a sport with a niche following spread across the nation. Swim fans are out there, to be sure. (NBC reported the top three athletes discussed on social media a few days ago were all swimmers.) Twitter gives swim fans a place to gather.

I was trying to describe Twitter to my 67-year-old mom. She told me, “I want a Tweeter.” Besides urging her never to say the word “Tweeter” again, I found a hilarious Tweet from Matt Grevers:

Not long after Nathan Adrian won his gold medal, roommate Grevers – also a gold medalist – Tweeted a message that said he had made Nathan’s bed as a congratulatory measure. Then, there was a picture of Nathan’s made bed. It was funny, and swim fans ate it up. I told my mom a different, more serious Twitter example involving Michael Phelps congratulating Ryan Lochte on his 400 IM victory, and doing so very publicly on Twitter. It was a classy move which has trickle-down unintended consequences. No doubt kids read these messages and see for themselves, “This is sportsmanship.”

These small, little details go a long way with swim fans in a sport frequently starved for attention, constantly looking for a way to lasso its broad reaches without the aid of mainstream sports coverage. Not only are these Tweets little windows into the personalities of those swimmers many fans idolize, but they also let spectators feel connected to a sport that’s oftentimes difficult to feel connected to – considering all the action takes place underwater.

The other interesting angle is the swimmers themselves. Each Olympic swimmer is becoming a little general of marketing opportunity. Most Olympic swimmers have tens of thousands of followers already. That didn’t exist even just a few months ago. “Followers” might be a broad, vague term, but when most swim meets are deemed “successful” when a few hundred people show up, if you can spread the word via a few hundred thousand people, think of the possibilities for swim meets. Twitter is free marketing. It’s cost-free promotion. In all honestly, with regard to their public persona and potential marketing/sponsorship opportunities, Olympic swimmers are held back by almost nothing. It’s like they are given a winning lotto ticket in the form of a verified Twitter account and told, “Here you go. Use this how you wish.”

These opportunities to be completely in charge of your own marketing didn’t exist “back in the day” of Biondi and Gaines. They were at the whims of others. Twitter lets these athletes not only interact with their oceans of fans, but get far more creative. Only time will tell how creative some of these swimmers will be.

Going forward, we’ll see how “The Twitter Olympics” evolve. What is certain, the swimmers who stay in the sport can grow fan bases, while swimmers who choose to move on can pursue professional opportunities with perhaps added publicity using the social media exposure they’ve gained this week. Even if Olympians use Twitter to tell jokes or re-tweet good luck messages from their followers, any interaction is good for the sport.

Just don’t call it a Tweeter.

Mike Gustafson (@MikeLGustafson) is a freelance writer with USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine.