Michael Phelps recently tweeted his mother from the American
team’s training camp in Australia. The 14-time Olympic champion may
have to resort to more conventional modes of conversation when he
arrives this week at the world championships in China, where
Twitter and Facebook are blocked by the government.
Unless users know how to create their own virtual private
network (VPN) or are willing to spend heavily on roaming fees and
post from foreign-based smartphones, access to foreign social
networking sites in China is difficult.
The government began blocking foreign social networking sites in
the first half of 2009 and shut down some Chinese clones after
deadly ethnic riots in China’s heavily Muslim Central Asian border
region of Xinjiang.
”We haven’t even tried. We’ve been to China so many times that
we just know you can’t do it,” said Australian diver Sharleen
Stratton after pairing with Anabelle Smith to win the bronze medal
in 3-meter springboard synchro on the opening night of competition
”So we kind of prepare ourselves before we go and tell
everybody they won’t hear from us for three weeks.”
Competing in his first world championship, American diver Aaron
Fleshner wasn’t completely prepared for the news.
”I use social media a lot when I’m at home. So with everything
blocked here I can’t get a hold of anybody,” he said. ”I’ve been
silent since I got here. The only people I’ve talked to are my
”I’ve got a lot of free time now. I’m reading books now,”
added Fleshner, who began a fantasy-adventure novel, ”The
Lightning Thief,” on his way to the pool Saturday.
Facebook was available in China when Phelps won a record eight
golds at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and Phelps recently started
posting on Twitter – his following has quickly shot up to 56,000
On Friday, Phelps posted this message to his mother, Debbie,
from his training base on Australia’s Gold Coast: ”MamaPhelpsH20
thanks mom!!! Miss u and love u!!! See u when u get over
China had committed to a more open Internet during the 2008
Olympics, at least in Beijing. But that was before the Iranian
protest movement of 2009 or this year’s ”Arab Spring” when social
networks proved their capabilities for organizing protest rallies
Some Chinese circumvent controls by using VPN services, though
that has become more difficult in recent months. At the same time,
the popularity of a homegrown Twitter-like service, Sina Weibo, has
The government counts on Sina to police the postings and expunge
objectionable material that mechanical filtering does not block.
Chinese, however, often find inventive, subtle ways to post views
critical of the government.
Nearly all Chinese divers post to Weibo, and a handful of
foreign divers have also recently joined in, namely British
standout Tom Daley, plus 14-time U.S. national champion David
”It’s cool to communicate with the Chinese population and it’s
funny to read their posts,” said Boudia, who is also keeping his
Twitter account updated with his American phone. ”I’m really into
social media networking.”
Of course, not everybody is affected. After all, some people
still don’t use social networking.
”I must be honest, I don’t have a Facebook (account),” said
veteran German diver Pavlo Rozenberg. ”I don’t like it. I prefer
email, short messages and SMS. I don’t use Facebook at all.”
For the record, swimming governing body FINA has not intervened
to open Facebook and Twitter to athletes competing here.
Said FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu: ”If it’s
blocked do you think we have the power to change it?”
Associated Press writer Charles Hutzler in Beijing and AP Sports
Writer Doug Feinberg in New York contributed to this report.
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