Facebook’s Social Olympic Ambition, Explore London 2012: A Dedicated Athlete Portal, But No Ads

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A lot of Londoners (me included) haven’t been able to get tickets to the London Olympics this summer. But we’ll all get something else, Facebook announced today. The company is launching Explore London 2012, a dedicated page for athletes to communicate with fans and provide their own personalized updates around the event, including medal wins and their own photographs as well as status updates. Alongside that, Facebook is adding other data to pad out the story: historical photographs and other information about notable events — part of an effort to be able to claim that 2012 will mark the first “Social Olympics.”

Officials from the International Olympics Committee tell me they started to work with Facebook on the effort some 18 months ago. So far there are only 250 of more than 10,000 Olympic athletes on the site, including UK athletes Tom Daly, Jessica Ennis, and the cycling team, although Facebook expects that to ramp up significantly in the weeks ahead. Significantly, although the pages may expect to get a huge amount of traffic from the millions of people who tune in to watch the sporting event, Facebook will not run any advertising alongside any of it.

“We will follow the athletes’ stories for the next 17 days,” says Joanna Shields, Facebook’s international head at an event in London this morning, pointing out the clear opportunity on a network to better curate and harness on a platform that already gets 1 billion comments and 300 million photos uploaded daily. “It’s that discovery through friends that makes things interesting and makes you want to click on media. We want to bring discovery to the Olympics.”

But that will not extend to discovery of brands. Because of “the notion of a ‘clean venue'” at the Olympics itself, with no branding or ads, “we will not be running ads against these pages,” adds Christian Hernandez, a head of platforms for Facebook.

Facebook’s relationship with the Olympics, it should be pointed out, is not exclusive. There will also be dedicated portals on Google+, as well as a Twitter branded page, a one-day check-in event with Foursquare (on Olympic Day), a project with Tumblr, and another specifically with Instagram. And, in China, because so much social media traffic comes over local sites, the Olympics is also working with Sina Weibo and Youku, Mark Adams, Director of Communications at the IOC, tells me.

But with Facebook the biggest of them all, it is the one that cannot be ignored and is perhaps the one that will make the biggest impact. “You really can’t ignore Facebook,” said Adams.

That was also part of the reason why Facebook was able to convince the International Olympic Committee to go with a dedicated page on its platform rather than trying to create an athletes’ portal of this kind on its own Olympics.com site.

Alex Hout, head of social media for the International Olympic Committee, noted to me that Vancouver was the Olympics’ first efforts in social media, where its friend count shot up from five to one million in the course of a few days — hence its interest to push the medium even more this time around.

For Facebook’s part, its Olympic reach will not end there, of course. Hernandez notes that the social network is working extensively with advertisers and brands to bring the Olympic experience to the social network — even if that will not appear on its Olympics page itself. (Here’s a fun experiment: let’s see which Olympics social media efforts end up getting more likes and traffic. So far there are some million fans of the Olympics on Facebook, and the organizers say that half a million people tune into its website daily to follow the progress of the Olympic torch. Another half million are on the daily email update list.)

Hernandez also noted that a number of broadcasters and other media companies are integrating Facebook into their own Olympics sites to enhance the social aspect of the experience.

What’s perhaps most cool about the Facebook Olympics effort — and that of other social media sites — is that it will be one more example of how much more democratizing the event has become with the evolution of the internet. With hundreds of events (and 10.5k athletes) to watch, TV broadcasters and newspapers can only use the highlights and never deliver a comprehensive picture. With Facebook’s effort, users who want to know every last detail of what is happening in gymnastics or synchronized swimming (ahem) could — that is, if the athletes participate in the process.

“These are stories that were not headline-worthy and may not have reached the public, but the real stories from the athletes themselves are the interesting ones,” noted Shields.

It also marks another kind of evolution of how the International Olympics Committee is also trying to make the whole thing into a more social and audience-focused event, while at the same time balancing that against the multimillion-dollar commercial interests for broadcasting that have been so closely entwined with the event.

The social media rules and guidelines up to now have been fairly strict but they are loosening a bit. “You can now take pictures in stadiums and share them, but videos in stadiums are still not allowed because of the agreements with broadcasters,” Adams told me. “We have to respect those contracts. We’ve freed up still photography and are working with the rest at the moment.”

More to come. Refresh for updates.