Olympics Folly

November 30, 2004
A campus gargoyle

Photo: Les Todd

 

Okay, I admit that I'm hardly a serious sports fan. And my mastery of communications technology is basic at best. So, it was surprising to see my name cascading through the world of cyberspace, from the websites of USA Today to the Indian Olympic Association, in a controversy involving the Olympics, the Web, and free speech.

As the Athens Olympics were getting under way in August, I received a call from an Associated Press reporter with some questions about Duke Magazine. The magazine was just beginning to run a Web log--the online community's equivalent of postcards sent home--from Curt Clausen '90, a race walker. (Pole-vaulter Jillian Schwartz '01 had contributed impressions from the opening ceremony.) For the reporter, Clausen's record as a competitor was less interesting than his habits as a blogger. The reporter explained that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had barred all those swimmers, runners, and race walkers from writing firsthand accounts for websites.

Supposedly the IOC was concerned about the interests of accredited journalists, and it was bound to be protective of broadcasters who had paid out big fees. Online journal-keeping might be confused with journalism, or might compete with journalism, or, in its muscularity, might be akin to journalistic opining on steroids.

The informed yet informal narratives provided by blogs are at once more personal and less sweeping than professional reporting. Their appeal is in their amateurishness. Blogging is an act of interpretation. Journalism, too, is an interpretation of reality. But journalism is part of a collective act, and the individual reporter's voice is tempered by the editorial standards of the organization. Journalists have editors. Journal-writers are lone voices. The beauty (sometimes the bane) of the Web is the space it gives to lone voices.

Indeed, it seems to me that blogging is to watching or reading about the Olympic games as touring a "virtual" art gallery is to visiting a museum: They are mutually reinforcing activities. Sampling the one--the little picture--lures you into the other--the big picture.

In "commissioning" the blogs (the Duke athletes weren't paid for their blogging efforts), we wanted to make the Olympics movement more meaningful and more vivid. The Web can deliver an immediacy that a bimonthly publication schedule doesn't allow. It can also help build relationships among readers, just as it can build relationships between them and the magazine. This is, after all, an alumni magazine devoted to education, not a commercial enterprise devoted to profit making. (That, of course, would feel so out of place at the Olympics.)

A media-relations person with the U.S. Olympic Committee (who had to be informed what a "blog" is) told me that our blogging project was inoffensive to him. He was certain that an Olympic athlete writing for his university's alumni magazine--assuming that he was relaying his own impressions and not compromising the privacy of other athletes--would be doing the sort of "hometown" reporting that wouldn't seem to violate any boundaries.

But a different official, writing from up high at IOC headquarters in the Ch‚teau de Vidy in Lausanne, Switzerland, helpfully referred me to Rule 59 of the Olympic Charter, Bylaw 5. It reads, "Under no circumstances, throughout the duration of the Olympic Games, may any athlete, coach, official, press attachÈ, or any other accredited participant be accredited or act as a journalist or in any other media capacity." He also shared a portion of the "IOC Internet Guidelines," which specify that "athletes, coaches, trainers, officials, and any other accredited participants may not submit journals or online diaries to websites during the actual Games period."

So for this period, it was officially a no-go for blogging. Period. Clausen couldn't see the sense of it; he related in his blog that the U.S. Olympic Committee might look the other way, as long as bloggers were not paid, but that rules were rules, however indefensible. Not surprisingly, other bloggers found common cause around this Olympian tug-of-war. Someone who blogs as "SpaceTramp" declared, "I'm with you," adding that "no one has the right to obstruct the flow" of information.

What you learn from a blogger's flow of words is what you learn from any unfiltered, on-the-scene report: You get the sights, sounds, tastes, really everything that goes into experiencing an event from a particular point of view. TV thrusts you into the scene, but from the vantage point of a wide-angle lens; it is fine for conveying images and the rough contours of story lines. But it can't fully document individual motivations and sensations.

Blogging from his training camp in Crete, Clausen discussed dealing with the basic issues of acclimation--key factors, for him, in determining success or failure. By night, he was easing into high altitudes, sleeping in an "altitude tent" at a simulated 9,000 feet. By day, he was adapting to high temperatures. "I used the same method in 1999 in the lead-up to the World Track and Field Championships in Seville, Spain, where I won the bronze medal," he wrote. (Unfortunately, he didn't turn in a medal-qualifying performance in Athens.)

What Clausen was doing was making himself a compelling character in the Olympics story. Wouldn't people want to see that story played out as he entered competition?

There's irony in the fact that an Olympics movement associated with the birth of Athenian democracy would see fit to clamp down on the speaking rights of its athletes. Clausen said as much in his blog. He wrote, "I think it is absolutely absurd to place a freedom-of-speech restriction on athletes and gladly violate the rule. Thanks for providing the opportunity!"

Well, Curt, you can thank a Greek guy named Pericles. As the Peloponnesian War was raging in the fifth century B.C., Pericles offered this solace in his famous funeral oration: "The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes."