Column: Keep Calm and Shut Up!

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Posted: Jul 31, 2012 3:07 PM
Column: Keep Calm and Shut Up!

LONDON (AP) — Oh, the things that come out of the mouths of babes, er, athletes.

Vile things. Racist things. A ton of stupid things.

Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou should be in London now, enjoying life in the athletes village while preparing for her specialty in the Olympic stadium. Instead she's stuck back home after offering up her idea of a joke on Twitter, everyone's medium of choice nowadays.

"With so many Africans in Greece, the West Nile mosquitoes will be getting home food!!!" Papachristou tweeted.

Swiss soccer player Michel Morganella made it here, but barely had time to check into the athletes village before he was sent packing. Not surprising after he said in a tweet that the South Koreans he had just played against were a "bunch of mongoloids" who "can go burn."

The official motto of the London Olympics is "Inspire a Generation." Maybe it should be "Keep Calm and Shut Up!"

It used to be drugs that got you kicked out of the Olympics. Now it's the most intoxicating drug of all: The ability to let the world know your thoughts in 140 characters or less.

The Olympics have always been populated by big talkers, from a young Cassius Clay to Charles Barkley, who said in 1992 he was afraid an Angolan player was going to pull a spear on him. Everything is magnified these days by social media, though, which isn't always terribly social.

These are the Twitter Games, where things once said just between teammates or friends are now blared for everyone. Everything from the Olympic experience (just great) to the food (mostly bad) to how 18-year-old British weightlifter Zoe Smith looks (by most accounts, pretty good) is dissected online, often in great detail.

The IOC endorses it, mostly because it has no choice. Luckily, Twitter was in its infancy in Beijing or the Chinese government might have tossed everyone out for some of the comments that would have come that country's way. Britain is, last time anyone checked, a democracy with certain free-speech rights, though there are laws against people going over the line.

But who among the fat cats running the IOC would have thought that the medium would be used to attack the organization itself? Apparently free food and lodging for three weeks and a chance to compete for a medal wasn't enough to satisfy athletes who ran a Twitter campaign — so far unsuccessful — to be able to promote their own sponsors at the games.

The good thing is there's no filter, allowing athletes to pass along their musings to their followers with no translators, spokesmen or Olympic officials getting in the way.

The bad thing is there's no filter, allowing athletes to say anything they want no matter how ridiculous it is or whom it offends.

"When's da Gun shooting competition?" hurdler Lolo Jones wanted to know the other day, in a tweet that prompted former Olympic gold medalist Diane Dixon to tweet back it was "NOT funny AT ALL!" in the wake of the Colorado shootings. The back-and-forth touched off yet another Twitter debate over what Jones wrote, which she tweeted was made in the context of hunting back home in Louisiana.

There wasn't much debate about what U.S. soccer goalie Hope Solo meant when she tweeted that NBC analyst Brandi Chastain — who so famously took off her shirt to celebrate the winning goal for a groundbreaking U.S. team in the 1999 World Cup — should quit criticizing the team's defense "until you get more educated" and that "the game has changed from a decade ago."

Solo didn't even get a slap on the wrist for that. Then again, announcers may be fair game because they're technically part of media no one likes anyway.

"It's just my opinion, and nothing else really matters, to be honest," Solo said a few days later.

It does matter when it's broadcast to the world with the swipe of a finger or the click of a mouse.

"People have their opinions, but you do have to be careful who you offend and the whole freedom of speech thing sometimes is a fine line," U.S. basketball player Candace Parker said Tuesday. "You don't want to speak too much."

It's not just athletes being stupid in London. Fans can also be total idiots, like the teenager who was arrested after posting messages to British diver Tom Daley, threatening to drown him and telling him he let down his late father after finishing out of medal contention. And there is a peculiar set of Twitter users who seem to delight in commenting when it comes to female athletes whose bodies don't fit the mold of most of the skin they see displayed on the Internet.

Smith, the British weightlifter, didn't have enough characters on Twitter to respond to some of the insults hurled her way. She did it instead in a nicely crafted blog post that should be required reading for any of the haters out there.

"The obvious choice of slander when talking about female weightlifting is how unfeminine girls shouldn't be strong or have muscles, this is wrong," she wrote. "And maybe they're right in the Victorian era."

Not everything is negative on Twitter, of course. Far from it. The vast majority of tweets urge athletes on, celebrate their achievements, commiserate with them when things go bad, and share their triumphs.

When 17-year-old swimming sensation Missy Franklin won her first gold medal, she got a tweet from teen heartthrob Justin Bieber telling her he was a fan.

"I just died!" Franklin tweeted back. "Thankyou!"

Not much to say after that, except this: Keep Calm and Tweet Away.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg