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posted: 2/12/2010 12:01 AM

Up close and real personal: Twitter Olympics are here

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - What if the Miracle on Ice players had Twitter accounts?

Or if the sprinters who raised their gloved fists on the medal stand could have shared their thoughts on Facebook?

Thanks to laptops, cell phones and other new technology, social networking could be the route the next transformative Olympian uses to get the word out.

Skaters, skiers, hockey players and the reporters who cover them now have almost instant access to their fans and readers at what has long been, for better and worse, one of the most grandiose stages for message-sending.

When the torch is lit today, it will mark the beginning of the Twitter Olympics era - the first games where social networking and sports collide on a global platform that only the Olympics can provide.

"I'm sure I'll be flooding tons of photos and tons of stories and glimpses from behind the scenes," said Shaun White, the defending Olympic halfpipe gold medalist. "Because, really, what an interesting and cool time to be sharing with everyone."

White is among the hundreds of athletes who have Twitter and Facebook accounts - or spaces on similar sites - with plans to use them over the 17-day sports festival.

They will give friends, family, fans and, yes, reporters updates on their training and competition, random musings, pictures, links to their Web sites and other peeks behind the Olympic curtain that the public can't usually see.

"I'm not a full addict like some people are," said American Nate Holland, one of the favorites in snowboardcross. "But I like to give updates and definitely get those out to people. I can just Facebook `Best course ever,' and 20 minutes later there are a ton of replies and people cheering you on. It strokes the ego a little bit."

Meanwhile, the traditional media is using social networking to try to build audiences that have been fragmenting of late. Reporters from The Associated Press, for instance, will be tweeting from venues and using those posts to link readers to stories on hundreds of customers' Web sites.

"Like many media companies, we are trying new methods to disseminate and gather information - in this case from athletes and others attending the Olympics," said Lou Ferrara, AP's managing editor for sports, entertainment and interactive media.

Of course, with technology comes confusion, and there's already been some of that.

Knowing the social networking craze was coming, the International Olympic Committee put out a four-page blogging guideline that supplements Rule 49 of the Olympic charter, which essentially states that only journalists can act as journalists at the games, while athletes and coaches cannot.

"The IOC considers blogging, in accordance with these Guidelines, as a legitimate form of personal expression and not as a form of journalism," the rule states.

What has yet to be seen is whether the information will spark something transformative - think sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists on the podium in the pre-cell-phone days of 1968 - or wind up only as more noise in the machine.

"I guess they have the opportunity to express their feelings and emotions on the computer," Carlos said. "That in itself would be a statement made. But my thing was very clear. I don't know if they could express the statement we made in Mexico on the computer."