Barry Eitel

When the Olympics last came to London in 1948, craters left by Nazi bombs were still visible. A good percentage of the city’s population was homeless and food was still being rationed even though Hitler was defeated. The British did not build a single new building for the games; instead, the world’s athletes lived in dorms and barracks. Three years after Hiroshima, humanity was still reeling from World War II.

Appropriately, the XIV Olympiad was christened the “Austerity Games.”

Sixteen Summer Games later, London hosts the Olympics again and they are anything but austere. The United Kingdom poured money, concrete and volunteers into their 2012 Games, but these Olympics are becoming famous for how they permeate the globe through the internet.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Social Media Games.

What does that mean? Well, now the Games aren’t limited to the planet’s elite physical specimens. Anyone with an internet connection, Twitter handle and just enough snark can easily participate.

Danny Boyle, director of the somewhat-bizarre-yet-mostly-moving Opening Ceremony, predicted how crucial social media and the web would be to these games. He dedicated a whole section to the digital age, complete with a Brit Pop soundtrack. This presentation featured Tim Berners-Lee, the Briton who invented the World Wide Web (therefore indirectly inventing lolcats). Typing away on a revolving desktop, Berners-Lee tweeted in front of the world his feelings about his baby: “This is for everyone.”

The stars of the games are all active on Twitter, including the most-decorated Olympian ever, Michael Phelps (@MichaelPhelps), and the fastest person in the world, Usain Bolt (@usainbolt). Home country darling Jessica Ennis (@J_Ennis) and Gabrielle Douglas (@gabrielledoug), the gymnast that all-arounded into our hearts, are also both on the social media site. It is challenging to find an athlete that is not live-tweeting their experience. Many are finding their number of followers growing steadily since the start of these Olympics.

The Social Media Games goes both ways, of course. Factoids, hashtags and random Olympic musings crawl over Twitter and Facebook from all over Earth. It didn’t take long for Facebook users to figure out Douglas’ last name could be rearranged to spell “USA GOLD.”

But the social media infatuation has not all been positive. Greek athlete Voula Papachristou was kicked out of the games for tweeting racist statements. Australian swimming star Stephanie Rice found herself in similar hot water two years ago after a homophobic tweet. NBC has earned plenty of public ire from disappointed American sports fans shooting off tweets with the #NBCFail hashtag.

Kinks aside, these Social Media Games are invigorating, inclusive and add a new facet to the institution. Although the powers that be fiercely attempt to keep the Olympics as neutral as possible, global politics and contemporary culture always shape each Olympiad.

Just as the horrors of WWII and hope for the future molded the Austerity Games, the global reach and worldwide conversation made possible by the internet define these Social Media Games.