SOCHI — The first big winner of the Sochi Olympics was not the stoked snowboarder from Park City, Utah, Sage Kotsenburg, who won the Games' first gold medal.
"The first star of the Olympics was #sochiproblems," sports social media strategist Craig Howe says.
As journalists arrived in Sochi and began to chronicle their complaints about murky water, open manholes and questionable toilets, these issues quickly became a hashtag, and the hashtag became a snarky Twitter account. That account — @SochiProblems — has about 340,000 followers, nearly 120,000 more than the official @Sochi2014 account.
From the start, the Sochi Olympics have been about engagement on social media, with athletes using crowd-funding to support their dreams.
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Social media has changed the way the Olympics are consumed and discussed, but has it become more compelling than the competition itself? Is it better to be a meme than a medalist?
"It's so rad," Kotsenburg said Monday. "So random that people want to follow you after you do something like that. All I did was land a run; I've landed tons of other runs." He gained 43,000 followers since winning gold Saturday.
For athletes, the Olympics are not just about competing for your country on the world's biggest stage in the world. They also are about raising your profile, which in turn could attract sponsors.
"This is a great opportunity to build my legacy and build my brand," says alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin, 18, who is expected to be one of the Games' breakout stars. One way to do that is by winning. Another is by becoming an Internet sensation.
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Before he became the guy trapped in the bathroom, Johnny Quinn was an anonymous bobsledder. After he punched through the door and tweeted a picture of the damage, he soon made a star turn on NBC's Today show. His original post has been re-tweeted 28,000 times and counting. He followed up by getting stuck on an elevator with a teammate, who tweeted a picture of Quinn trying to break out.
Many know about figure skater Ashley Wagner's "not impressed" look that became a meme. But does anyone remember her redemptive skate that triggered that reaction? Would anyone care about Russian speedskater Olga Graf if not for her self-inflicted wardrobe malfunction?
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Some argue the carping about toilets and Olympic ring issues diverts attention from serious Sochi problems, such as human rights abuses, environmental issues and mistreatment of migrant workers in building the infrastructure for these Games.
At the same time, social media has helped human rights groups monitor abuses and pressure sponsors. The #CheerstoSochi campaign by gay rights activists hasn't moved McDonald's or Coke to take a stand against Russia's anti-gay legislation. But, as Minky Worden, Human Rights Watch's director of global initiatives, says, "It's been ugly for them, and I think it will make a difference eventually."
Worden says social media have been one of the major changes since the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Six years ago, news reporters chronicled abuses, but today social media magnifies them dramatically. In Beijing, Worden says, "It didn't filter out in real time via viral tweets."
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More than ever, technology and social media have bridged the gap between Olympians and their friends, families and followers back home. For the first time, NBC is live-streaming every competition of a Winter Games, providing more than 1,000 hours of coverage. In 2010 at Vancouver, NBCOlympics.com live-streamed 400 hours of competition.
The 2012 London Games were dubbed the Twitter Olympics. Two years later, we have the Viral Games. Five days into #Sochi2014, there have been more than 10.1 million Olympic-related tweets, according to Twitter.
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Athletes are tweeting before and after events, commenting on teammates' performances and providing an inside look at the life of an Olympian. Even the heartbreaking moments.
Moguls skier Heidi Kloser was expected to medal in her first Olympics. However, after tearing her anterior cruciate ligament during warm-ups before her qualification run, Kloser's Olympics were over before they began. Her father's Facebook post made the moment even more gut-wrenching. "When she was in the ambulance, she asked Emily and me if she was still an Olympian. ... We said of course she is!" he wrote.
Few athletes use Twitter more effectively than hurdler-turned-bobsledder Lolo Jones. After she was named to the Olympic roster, three teammates told USA TODAY Sports that they thought Jones was given a spot because of her fame — and her 384,000 followers.
"I should have been working harder on gaining Twitter followers than gaining muscle mass," Olympic veteran Emily Azevedo said after she was passed over.
In Sochi, Jones joked, "I honestly wish it was Twitter followers that would have got me the spot, because that would mean I was guaranteed for real."
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At the opening ceremony, seemingly every U.S. Olympian held his or her cellphone aloft to capture the moment, then post it on Instagram, of course.
Since most of those competing have grown up living their lives online, it's telling that the only significant controversy so far stemmed from a tweet from a 64-year-old Russian. Less than five months ago, Irina Rodnina, a three-time Soviet Olympic figure skating gold medalist and member of the Russian parliament who lit the Olympic caldron Friday, sent a racist tweet mocking President Obama. Monday, she said her account had been hacked and she doesn't support racism.
Two years ago at the London Games, triple jumper Voula Papachristou was sent home by Greece for her tweets commenting on African immigrants and expressing support for a far-right party. The IOC has strict guidelines on what athletes can say on social media, and this was the first time an athlete was booted from the Games over the issue.
The U.S. Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee said Monday that they've been pleased at how athletes are using social media. Before the Games, there was concern there might be strict monitoring. So far, that hasn't been the case.
"We take a very laissez-faire attitude," IOC spokesman Mark Adams says. "Clearly, if something breaks the charter, something that's racist or offensive, we take it down. So far, we haven't had any issues."
But the Olympics are young. There are 12 days left, with millions of tweets to come.
Contributing: Lindsay H. Jones.
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