Olympics: made for bloggers

The Baltimore Sun

"Swifter, Higher, Stronger" was how Pierre de Coubertin described the Olympic ideal a century ago, after resurrecting the games of the ancient Greeks.

And now we could add "Bloggier," due to the modern geeks.

If there was ever an event that plays to the best qualities of blogging, it's the Olympics.

They're political and global, prime topics for blogging. The preparation and even the event itself are scattered, so it's easier for observers blogging to be everywhere than it is for traditional news media. Far-off time zones create a problem for live television in the United States, but results and descriptions can be available instantly online. Translation software can help break down language barriers. And the Olympics are the most nichey of sporting spectacles - a compilation of marquee events that get worldwide attention every four years and many obscure ones begging for some informed person with a computer to enlighten us about.

"In essence, this is the first Web 2.0 Olympics," said Lee Rainie, founding director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a research center in Washington. "Blogging existed in 2004 and 2006, but there wasn't as much information-spreading and dissemination as there is now.

"You don't need to be credentialed to do it. There are people who have covered the Iraq war essentially with a tip jar," he said. "You don't need an institution behind you or a laminated card to go out and cover things."

The International Olympic Committee considers blogging "a legitimate form of personal expression," not a form of journalism, so bloggers don't need - nor can they get - media credentials unless they're already members of the news media.

"Online has become a significant factor in the news marketplace, but we have also found that it is primarily the same 'old' media organizations, i.e. news agencies and newspapers, who are the leaders in the online journalism, including blogging," Anthony Edgar, head of media operations for the Switzerland-based IOC, wrote in an e-mail last week. "The Googles, Yahoos and other big Internet players have simply not gotten into content production. They still rely on AP, Reuters ... etc. to get their content."

The Olympic committee forbade athletes from blogging during the 2004 summer games in Athens, in part to protect the value of the exclusive broadcast rights. The IOC will, for the first time, allow athletes and coaches to blog from Beijing - that is, if their own national Olympic committees allow it - so long as they don't reveal information about or interview one another.

The Australian Olympic Committee has already said it will prohibit blogging by its athletes in Beijing for fear it could turn the competition into a reality TV show.

"The nature of the technology is such that if someone came off the field or the track annoyed about something, they could spout off at their competitors or their coaches. That would undermine team spirit," Craig Phillips, secretary-general of the Australian Olympic Committee, told the BBC. "Blogging would allow athletes to launch missiles electronically, and it could become a real free-for-all."

Last week's protests during the torch relay exemplified the power and restlessness of the medium. Thousands of photos and videos mushroomed on sharing sites like YouTube and Flickr, showing the chaos that ensued in Europe and the Americas. As protestors decried China's human-rights violations and its crackdown on a democratic movement in Tibet, they were confronted by authorities and by spectators offended by the protests.

While critics accuse the traditional news media of harboring hidden biases and conflicts, much of the new media just puts its biases right out there. User-generated content of the relay last week often included comments clearly for or against the protests.

"Some stupid little idiot who knows nothing about Tibet decides to try and protest in the Canary Wharf leg of the Olympic Torch Relay through London ... and he got murked!" wrote one video-blogger, who posted clips of a teen being pushed away by police as the relay went from festive to frantic.

A more cynical blogger quoted George Orwell's 1984 - "All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary" - while linking to the official Torch Relay site (torchrelay.beijing2008.cn), which proclaimed the ongoing ceremony a success.

"The Olympic torch has received a warm welcome worldwide," a news release on the official site said. "Although it was cold in London, with the temperature at zero degrees Celsius, more than one thousand Londoners from all walks of life participated in the launching ceremony of the London leg of the Torch Relay. London artists gave brilliant performances amid snow; passionate crowds lined the relay route. ... There have been attempts made to disturb and sabotage the Torch Relay by a small number of 'pro-Tibet independence' activists. ... They are bound to fail and will surely arouse the resentment of peace-loving people who support the Olympic Games."

Blogs are well suited to follow a global ceremony around the world. The Latin Americanist, an English-language forum for "all things Latin American," described the anxiety in Argentina as Buenos Aires geared up to receive the torch Friday.

And at a more micro level at the torch's previous stop, neighborhood blogs in San Francisco tried to keep ahead of rumors about the ever-changing relay route, which officials shifted to limit confrontations with protestors.

"I suspect the route will remain on The Embarcadero just because the wide streets and waterfront border should make it relatively easier to secure than other areas around downtown or even up around Fisherman's Wharf," rinconhillsf.org, a blog from the city's South of Market neighborhood, predicted the day before the relay. "From what I've read, protesters who plan on throwing themselves in the path of the runners or whatever other actions they believe they need to take to get on the news will likely do it around Fisherman's Wharf where the streets are narrower."

Officials may have been reading the same blogs.

They shifted the route elsewhere.


Andrew Ratner, a former technology reporter, is Today editor of The Sun.

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