The American track team, speaking to the international press this week in London in the lead-up to the beginning of their program, produced some headlines, but they had little to do with the competition, which begins Friday morning. No, it was all about … business.
Just when you thought the Americans could get beyond their drug scandals of the last three Olympics, they found a new talking point. Their complaint? They want more money!
The issue is the new IOC Rule 40, which addresses new media and says that Olympians — from any country and in any sport — should refrain from promoting commercial sponsors during the period of the Olympic Games, especially in such electronic venues as Facebook and Twitter, which barely existed four years ago but have millions of followers around the world now.
Sanya Richards-Ross, one of the stars of the U.S. team, told the press, "I've been very fortunate to do very well around the Olympics, but so many of my peers struggle in this sport.
"The majority of track and field athletes don't have sponsors and don't have support to stay in the sport."
The restriction, however, was limited to the period of the Games themselves, and to athletes actually on the national team, thus affecting a handful of U.S. track athletes, and not affecting most of the performers who may be without commercial sponsors.
Nevertheless, for some American athletes this seems to be their focus. The Oregon halfmiler Nick Symmonds tweeted, "I am honored to be an Olympian, but #WeDemandChange2012 #Rule 40 @NBCOlympics."
The miler Leonel Manzano wrote, "I just had to take down my picture of my shoes and comments about their performance. This rule is very distracting to us athletes, and it takes away from our Olympic experience and training."
This could be mostly a dispute among shoe companies. Manzano, Symmonds and Richards-Ross are all represented by the same company, Nike, while the official Olympic shoe sponsor is adidas. Track athletes have been told they are expected to appear at medal ceremonies wearing adidas shoes. Some have responded that they will appear barefoot instead.
Is Nike helping orchestrate the athlete "rebellion?" Nike is not shut out of an Olympic presence. At a recent beach volleyball match, the Spanish men's pair wore a uniform displaying a Nike swoosh and caps with an additional swoosh. Nike is also an advertiser on NBC Games telecasts. However, Nike does not have the official status conferred on its rival adidas.
Is this an international issue or only American? That's not clear, though Dai Greene, the British 400 hurdler, told the press, "I don't think any of us for one second thinks we deserve the right to be paid to be here. We've all worked our socks off because we want to be the gold medalist … and be part of the team and something special. I think that’s more than enough payment for us all to be honest."
The International Olympic Committee's spokesman, Mark Jones, restated the IOC’s position. "For one month, we ask them not to endorse products not related to the Olympics that don’t actually give money back to the movement."
And more Twitter
The Twitter controversies spilled over into the company itself, when Twitter suspended the account of a British journalist, Guy Adams, a reporter for the British newspaper The Independent. Adams, who is not even in London for the Games, wrote from Los Angeles, where he is based, to complain that NBC was delaying its telecasts until prime time. On the west coast of the United States, which is eight hours behind London time, this can mean a considerable delay, and Adams included the name and email address of the president of NBC Olympics, Gary Zenkel, encouraging readers to bombard Zenkel with their complaints.
What happened next is not entirely clear — NBC said it did not file the initial complaint — but because disclosing private email addresses is a violation of Twitter policy, Adams' account was suspended.
This was complicated by the fact that NBC and Twitter now have a joint business arrangement, so was Twitter protecting NBC?
After a lot of to and fro, Adams' account was restored. "Our interest was in protecting our executive, not suspending the user from Twitter," NBC said.
Last week, two athletes — Paraskevi Papachristou of Greece and Michel Morganella of Switzerland — were suspended from their delegations and sent home after they posted Twitter remarks deemed offensive and in violation of the Olympic oath.
The television delays — not new to Olympic broadcasts — remain a heated subject. Adams was especially upset that the telecast of the Opening Ceremonies last week was delayed.
NBC counters that much of its audience is at work, or asleep, when events take place many hours earlier.
The difference today is that there are so many ways to learn information almost instantaneously, especially online but also through smartphones, tablets, etc. The advice is that if you don't want to know ahead of time, don't be on your computer — just now, I received a bulletin email from the New York Times telling me who won the men’s 100 free — and take care what competing TV channels you watch as well.
ESPN, accustomed to a huge and loyal sports-loving audience, has had to cede some of that to NBC this summer. In response, not only does ESPN report Olympic results promptly on its flagship SportsCenter show, it even reports them in a ribbon at the bottom of the screen, meaning even if you’re just channel surfing or changing channels, ESPN might give it away. Other competing network stations do the same, even on local sports shows, as they do here in my hometown of Portland, Ore. Do they want to spoil it for you (such breaks are called Spoilers) so that you might decide not to watch the Olympics that night and watch their summer sitcom rerun instead?
It’s not yet clear how the time delays will be handled once track & field begins. This Saturday, for example, the women’s 100 final will take place at 9:55 pm London time. Will it be shown live — 4:55 on the East Coast — or delay? TV prefers to build into its biggest moments, so if it shows that race in real time, do they lose half their Saturday evening audience? On the other hand, if they intentionally delay it by five hours, they risk alienating those viewers who now want everything shown live.