- Michael Wilbon, Pardon the Interruption co-host
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LONDON -- Ade Dagunduro is 26 years old, a man of the world who plays for the Nigerian Olympic basketball team. He attended college at the University of Nebraska, calls Southern California home and plays professionally in Belgium. He's the quintessential Olympian for these London Summer Games except in one fundamental way.
"I don't tweet," Dagunduro said recently. "I don't have a Twitter account. At these Olympics, that means I'm the outcast. My teammates say I'm out of touch, and I wind up telling them, 'Maybe so, but I'm not going to get into trouble.'"
It would be totally inaccurate to suggest every athlete with a Twitter account has gotten himself or herself into trouble here. Gabby Douglas and Michael Phelps let us know through Twitter they had received phone calls from the president of the United States. Douglas, the darling of the U.S. performers so far, has received Twitter love from, among others, Justin Bieber, Gabrielle Union, Elizabeth Banks and Oprah.
Athletes are able to share their Olympic experiences with family members who couldn't travel to the Games. Some international competitors who went to college in the U.S. but have since fanned out across the world have been able to find their former teammates and have mini-reunions in the Olympic Village. Having some sense of this and its bloated role here, Twitter itself posted on its blog, "Records are being shattered and dreams achieved. The world has turned to Twitter to come together in celebration."
That said, Dagunduro has been very wise to realize it's entirely too easy for an Olympic athlete to get in trouble via Twitter. Two athletes have been sent home, one to Switzerland and the other to Greece, after racist tweets. One person used Twitter to taunt British diver Tom Daley about his recently deceased father. British cyclist Bradley Wiggins, who took home the Olympic time trial gold just weeks after winning the Tour de France, tweeted pictures during his "blind drunk" medal celebration across from St. Paul's. U.S. goaltender Hope Solo went on a clueless and egomaniacal rant.
Twitter, which you'd think would take free speech very seriously, suspended the account of a British journalist essentially for criticizing Olympic business partner NBC.
"You touch that send button and you could be in so much trouble," Dagunduro said. "People are putting pictures out there. It's scary. Social media is just everywhere here. I've been telling my teammates, 'Be careful.' Your life can change in a minute because you posted something you thought was funny that somebody else doesn't see as being funny at all."
When I asked Dagunduro, whose father is Nigerian and mother is American, what he thought of the two athletes being expelled from the Games for tweeting bigoted comments, he said, "I'm OK with those decisions. There should be no tolerance for racism, especially not on the biggest stage in the world. The only way you're going to get your point across is to have a hard crackdown ... and getting sent home from the Olympics is a severe consequence."
Richard Phillips, a 110-meter hurdler for Jamaica, is tweeting his Olympic experiences but said he thought the expulsions "went too far. You have to be careful, yes, but once you hit that send button, there's no coming back. You do have to take note that their own federations kicked them out. ... The thing is, there are so many people from so many different cultures here, with different sensitivities, and when you do something like those two did at the Olympics, you're the center of attention in a way you've probably never been in your life."
To Phillips' point, Greek triple-jumper Paraskevi Papachristou, who was expelled by her own country's officials for mocking African immigrants, tweeted five apologies afterward, but the racist comments were retweeted and cost her perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime Olympic experience. Soccer player Michel Morganella, who was booted by Switzerland's Olympic committee, was dumb enough to tweet that he wanted to beat up South Koreans and said they should burn, to which his coach said, "He discriminated, insulted and violated the dignity of the South Korean football team and people."
I'd agree with Phillips if Morganella and Papachristou had written one line or uttered something into a live microphone during a post-event interview in the international media area, or even if they posted tweets and quickly retreated from their ignorance. The problem is, each seemed pretty proud in the moments afterward. Officials acted severely but with justification in sending them home.
It's ironic that European athletes were expelled for racist comments, while soccer players across Europe utter hideously racist things and usually receive no more than a slap on the wrist.
If international soccer truly wants to get rid of its offensive behavior, especially as it opens itself up to the rest of the world and other cultural standards with the scrutiny and money that comes with accepting greater popularity, a similar crackdown seems to be the remedy. The question is whether enough people in international football at the highest levels care. The expulsions here at the Olympics weren't just punitive, they were a deterrent. You have to wonder if UEFA is paying attention.
Serena Williams has approximately 3 million followers on Twitter, many of whom like her unfiltered expression, but she told Fox Sports' Greg Couch that she was going to be very cautious about tweeting during the Olympics. Phillips said he was tweeting things like what he's eating for breakfast, what the weather is in London, "but nothing about individual teammates for sure ... and I don't tweet anything I dislike. I don't want to offend our hosts."
A small handful of the oldest athletes in London can remember the Olympics before the 1998 Nagano Games during which there was no Internet. (OK, someone may have been wired in 1996 in Atlanta, but not a significant number of people.) In Barcelona (1992), Seoul (1988) and Los Angeles (1984), Olympic officials had computer terminals set up in the Olympic Village and Main Press Center; credentialed media could log on and check an early, primitive form of email they could send to other credentialed souls on the grounds. Just describing it sounds like the 1950s. Now even a sports columnist can have nearly 700,000 Twitter followers.
(And yes, I live in fear of saying something that offends someone and gets me fired, which is why it took me forever to open a Twitter account in the first place. There are times when Twitter is such a great tool for creating a sense of community and times when is underscores how mean we can be.)
Jason Lezak, a four-time Olympic gold-medal-winning swimmer, felt left out, like Dagunduro, because he didn't have a Twitter account as the Games approached.
"Everybody was doing it, all my teammates," Lezak said, "so I have to give it a whirl. I've found it amazing, and not just the tweets, but how many people care, how many respond. And you have to wonder, with the training demands the best athletes in the world have, how they have time [to read] all the comments on the tweets."
Lezak was relatively unconcerned about his teammates while the swimming competition was going on, "but now that the swimmers are done and have time on their hands," he said, "let's see if anybody does anything crazy."
Dagunduro was sheepish enough over his father setting up a Facebook account, in part to keep up with his son as closely as possible. Dagunduro, meanwhile, was reaching out to former Cornhuskers competing in these Games and other Southern Californians, like U.S. track and field star Allyson Felix. Dagunduro, before the competition ends, is determined to "capture the essence of the Olympics, which is difficult when you're training and competing. It can take away the awe of the event, which I want to have a sense of."
And to that end, he's trying to create his own small network of people from various places.
"I'm a social guy," he said. "Just not much on social media."
Twitter has been a way for athletes to share their Olympic experiences. But some are wary of the social space and its sometimes disparaging audience.