Viewership of the 2012 London Olympics continues to break records. More people are watching than ever. The Internet and the airwaves are full of stories. The Olympics have proven to be a fascinating showcase for not just athletics but also for popular culture. Who knew archery would garner higher US viewership than any other sport, including basketball? The speculation is that it was caused by the recent success of the movie The Hunger Games, where the main character competes in a do-or-die competition that includes archery. In the perennial cycle of art imitating life imitating art, odd confluences occur.
I've been fascinated by another confluence of popular culture and Olympic competition, but this one involves athletes who aren't competing: Paraskevi "Voula" Papachristou and Michel Morganella. These two young athletes trained for years to reach an Olympic level of competition. Each, in turn, was leveled by something notoriously difficult to train -- the tongue.
Papachristou, of Greece, didn't even make it to London; this 23-year-old triple-jumper was barred from participating in her first Olympics because of a tweet she sent out prior to the games that was deemed racist. Morganella, a soccer player from Switzerland, also 23, made it to London, but after a loss blasted offensive comments, again via Twitter, resulting in his expulsion from the remainder of the games and a loss of his Olympic accreditation. Both went on to apologize but the damage was already done.
According to the Morganella story, the International Olympic Committee has a code of conduct, which includes a requirement that athletes show each other mutual respect. Papachristou and Morganella failed to factor that respect into Twitter. They also failed to factor that personal thoughts sent via Twitter are no longer private.
I'm not condoning what either of these athletes said but I have to admit I had a "there but for the grace of God go I" reaction when I saw these stories. I remember being 23. I remember some of the dumb and stupid things I said and did at that age, things I deeply regretted. Simply put, I remember being young. Back then, the only people privy to my stupidity were usually friends or family, those people who knew me well, understood my shortcomings, and were the most likely to whack me across the head and tell me to "knock it off!" What do you do when your stupidity and display of your dark side is sent out to hundreds, then thousands, then millions via the Internet? Your margin for error, with that many people involved, people who don't know you but only know the 140 characters you tweeted, becomes razor thin.
In previous US Olympic coverage, there used to be a segment called "Up Close and Personal." These segments were mini-bios, showing where the athletes grew up and their families, allowing viewers to get a glimpse at their personal lives. Those carefully choreographed mini-bios have been replaced by uncensored, in-the-moment, mini-blogs, with the individuals tweeting their immediate thoughts and reactions -- good and bad -- without filter.
With the old "up close and personal" filter no longer in place, my thought is these athletes should have used a different filter. Of course, the filter that immediately comes to mind wouldn't be familiar to today's 23-year-olds. That filter is what I call the "Thumper Principle" and it comes from the Disney film Bambi, which I watched as a kid. In Bambi, there was a rabbit named Thumper who articulated the Thumper Principle: If you can't say something nice, don't say nothin' at all. I believe Papachristou and Morganella dearly wish they'd said nothing at all. I'm not so sure they understand the something-nice part of the principle yet but, just as I matured as I got older, I have to hope they will, too. Since they've got some time on their hands, they might want to lay off Twitter and YouTube Thumper instead.