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Japan Olympic athletes get coached on social media use to avoid scams, blackmail

A group of athletes are seen being lectured by an expert on safe use of social media as an Olympian, in this image provided by the Japan Olympic Committee.
A group of athletes are seen being lectured by a coach on safe use of social media as an Olympian, in this image provided by the Japan Olympic Committee.

TOKYO -- Interaction between athletes and fans in Japan has become more common than ever thanks to social media sites. While it can be a good opportunity for encouragement and positivity, there have also been cases of athletes getting caught up in issues around information leaks and malicious usage by dishonest individuals.

But what are some of the underhand methods people are using to infiltrate athletes' trust?

Among a series of real-life examples is an exchange started by a fan who directly contacted an athlete via Twitter. "Good work in the competition. I took a great photo of you and want to send it as a gift," one read. "Please send me your address so that I can mail it to you." In this case, the person reportedly then used the information to come uninvited to the victim's home.

The Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) says there are even worse examples out there. One athlete apparently let their guard down and agreed to a fan's proposal to start exchanging photos. The exchange suddenly got intimidating and threatening when a message apparently came through from the fan reading, "If these photos were to get out there it'd be a problem (for you), wouldn't it?"

In that case, the athlete ignored the messages, and it came to nothing. But at times like the night after a big event they're competing in, athletes are advised that their guard may be down, and that's when people may try to take advantage of them.

There were also reports of one athlete who was tricked into thinking they were talking to a former schoolmate. Once the victim had come to trust the imposter, they started revealing information about their team to them. The details coming out of their exchanges were subsequently leaked online.

Additionally, there are also concerns around athletes casually making social media posts that then spark unexpected criticism. In the event for example that they talk about a product and write something like, "I always eat this before a competition," the JOC says that if the item has been provided by a sponsor then it's very important that somewhere on the post it clarifies that it is PR and that the athlete has a professional relationship with the firm involved.

It said that if something like this is forgotten, it could be seen as "stealth marketing," in which a message about a product is delivered without it being clear whether it is commercial in nature or not. Stealth marketing is seen as ethically problematic, and could apparently lead to a sudden social media pile on or bout of flaming.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has since 2010 been encouraging athletes to share content on the internet as a way to get the word about the games out to young people. There are many athletes who have reduced the distance between themselves and their fans through social media.

Among them is Japan's Nozomi Okuhara, a 24-year-old badminton singles player aiming for gold at the Tokyo Olympics, who has more than 140,000 followers on Twitter. Following requests by fans abroad, she sometimes writes about recent events in her life in English, and gains inspiration from followers' encouragement.

To help people avoid getting stuck in the traps hidden in the background of these effective initiatives, the JOC has been running events to raise awareness on good social media usage at venues where each sport's athletes and trainers congregate.

From fiscal 2019 the JOC has been providing a special app for designated athletes called "SNS failures" and other initiatives with quizzes to communicate the correct way to use social media.

In preparation for the Olympics, from April each sports association will have their athletes lodge together for training, and the JOC will also use that time to explain the risks directly to those participating in the games.

A JOC official said, "Japan representative athletes taking part in the Tokyo Olympic Games will be subject to even more attention than they already have been until now, so (even in the case of inappropriate posts) they can't just plead ignorance and expect that to be the end of it. If they're carrying these issues with them, it will mean they can't focus on their performances."

(Japanese original Yuta Kobayashi, Sports News Department)

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