Swimmers can’t use social media at world championships

Chris Chase
July 18, 2011

Don't expect many posts on @michaelphelps in the next few weeks.

The Associated Press notes that swimmers in China for next's week swimming and diving world championships will be without Twitter and Facebook, both of which are banned by the Chinese government. Competitors can get around the firewall by creating their own private network or relaying messages to someone outside the country, but that sounds like a lot of trouble go through for something so trivial.

Because, on a one level, what's the big deal? So some swimmers can't check Facebook or send 140-character messages to a few thousand followers. They'll kill time in China doing something else, like watching DVDs or sending texts or reading a book. Fans won't suffer either, unless reading Ryan Lochte responding to Tweets with an affirmative" jeah!" or Michael Phelps' frustrated travel updates is a crucial part of their sporting experience.

Except that this is a big deal. Free speech and sedition are banned for 1.3 billion people. Now, some of those rules are being foisted upon athletes not used to such restrictions. There's an opportunity here for swimmers and divers to address the issue in public and draw attention to the issue.

Chances are they won't and I don't blame them. Phelps is there to win races, not to start an international incident. Lochte's job in Shanghai isn't to make life more difficult for Chinese censors. Nothing will change. China will continue stifling free speech in the name of authoritarianism and the world will acquiesce because money trumps all. If the IOC and the Olympics movement, and the billions of dollars they represent, couldn't affect change China, what chance does FINA and a few swimmers have?