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Stephanie Rice Photo Puts Australian Olympic Swim Team in Hot Water Again

SANTA CLARA, CA - JUNE 03:  Stephanie Rice of Australia adjusts her sunglasses before getting ready for her race during day 4 of the Santa Clara International Grand Prix at George F. Haines International Swim Center on June 3, 2012 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Avi Wolfman-ArentCorrespondent IIJune 27, 2012

Australia's best swimmers may want to cool their heels on the whole social media thing for a while.

Maybe read a book. Take a nature walk. Revisit that long-dormant stamp collection.

Seriously, whatever it takes to steer clear of the World Wide Web.

Less than a month after swimmers Nick D'Arcy and Kenrick Monk ruffled feathers by posing with firearms and posting the pictures on Facebook, Stephanie Rice—defending Olympic champion in the 200- and 400-meter individual medley—triggered a similar response when she tweeted a photo of herself Tuesday wearing a rather revealing bikini (even by bikini standards).

The common link? All three swim for Australia.

Oh, and all three got major blowback from a home nation that apparently doesn't take well to Internet hijinks.

Now, we could use this space to debate whether or not the outrage has merit, but we have that conversation every time an athlete makes a fool of him or herself. Quite frankly, it's a bit tired.

So let's take a different tack and ask a different question.

How should Olympic athletes approach social media?

I say Olympic athletes, in particular, because they operate on a different fame cycle than most other athletes.

Most athletes build their followings year-to-year, ebbing and flowing a bit with the seasons but generally maintaining a regular public presence.

Not Olympians. They get roughly three months on either side of the Summer Games to make a crossover impression. That six-month window is critical, not just in how they're viewed as an athlete, but how they're remembered as a person—if they're remembered at all.

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 17:  Stephanie Rice of Australia warms up during day three of the Australian Swimming Championships at the South Australian Aquatic & Leisure Centre on March 17, 2012 in Adelaide, Australia.  (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images
Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

And by extension, this quadrennial ripple in time can have a lasting effect on an Olympic athlete's long-term financial prognosis. Fortunes can be made and lost over a few months of blitz marketing.

You can imagine the pressure on Olympic athletes to build their Twitter followings or promote their Facebook accounts in this make-or-break window.

I've had Olympic athletes—accomplished, significant Olympic athletes—break off an interview answer mid-sentence and ask that I—an un-accomplished, insignificant Olympic writer—remember to plug their Twitter accounts in my story.

Those little numbers next to a Twitter avatar? They matter. In a big way.

But the Olympic athlete also needs to balance attention-hording with common sense, and in both cases, our Australian brethren seem to have lost sight of that imperative.

Remember, it's not really about what you find offensive or what you find innocent. It's about what other people think, and that isn't a reference to the majority. A strong-willed minority view can be just as damaging.

And if any post risks offending a critical mass—which, for clarity's sake, we'll define as five percent of the population—nix it. There's always a more palatable, creative, enlightening post around the corner.

Stephanie Rice should know that. All Olympic athletes should know that.

The six-month Olympic window is too important to risk.

Interact with fans. Promote your brand. But above all, play it safe.

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