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Gen LaCaze and the power of social media

Genevieve LaCaze competing for Florida University Credit: Rob Foldy

It flew slightly under the radar in a weekend filled with US Open golf, international rugby tests and emotion fuelled NRL contests, but the decision by Athletics Australia to allow Genevieve LaCaze to compete in London will have much further reach and implication that any of those events combined.

We’ve just witnessed the first ever Australian athlete selected in a team by social media. It’s so much bigger than just one girl running one race at one track meet.

You know the story by now – the 22 year old met the Olympic qualifying standard in her event, the steeplechase, but failed to win a spot in the side as her time came just over a day after the June 11 cut off.

Athletics Australia said she wouldn’t be considered for the team; Australian Olympic Committee President John Coates then threw his support behind LaCaze, imploring Athletics Australia to exercise discretion and send her to the Games.

Cue a hysteric level of attention and support from sports fans all over the world, who took to Twitter with the hashtags #letlacazego, #letlacazerun and #genlacaze trending over the weekend. Even sports stars Joel Selwood and Quade Cooper tweeted their support for LaCaze.

At one point, LaCaze even found herself the highest trending athlete on Twitter, with more people talking about her than mega stars Usain Bolt and Lolo Jones.

It took less than 48 hours for Athletics Australia to bow to the public pressure, and they performed a backflip even Nadia Comaneci would have been proud of to extend the qualifying cut-off date to June 22, meaning that in all likelihood, LaCaze will run in London.

It’s a remarkable story, and one that probably wouldn’t have been given traction even just four years ago, during the build up for the Beijing Games.

But what does it mean for athletes? Will we now see more and more competitors take their cases further, when they fail to win selection? You can put the house on it.

The LaCaze decision means that any athlete who fails to meet qualifying standards in the future now has a precedent to site. They’ll automatically have grounds for appeal.

Whether or not Gen LaCaze succeeds in London, or in any future track competitions, she’ll leave a legacy behind. For the next decade, and probably further, her name will be mentioned every time an athlete pleads with the governing body for selection.

We’ve already seen a number of selection stoushes between governing bodies and athletes in recent months – triathlete Emma Snowsill and rower Pippa Savage are high profile examples. You can expect incidents of this type to skyrocket before the 2016 Games.

It’s interesting to look at why the LaCaze case has made headlines, when there are plenty of others that haven’t received the same amount of attention. While it’s impossible to know for sure, it’s probable that less than one percent of those who tweeted about LaCaze knew who she was before the story broke (aside from her friends and family, of course).

LaCaze herself being on Twitter gave the campaign a big boost. People like to jump on board a cause – and in this case, it definitely helped that the cause was one young, very talented athlete who just happens to be stunningly attractive.

Technology has ensured sports fans are so much more informed than the generations before them. It’s not enough to simply know who won the game or the race – we crave. We want to know what’s happening on the training track and at home as much as what’s happening on the court or field.

There are so many more sources of news and so many more forms of media than there once was, meaning of course, there are more writers who are each looking for a different angle, a new way to tell the story to bring readers and viewers to their website or newspaper.

It adds up to produce a giant spotlight that shines not only on the athletes, but on the administration and governing bodies. Stories like this wouldn’t have rated a mentioned on the papers 20 years ago. But sport isn’t limited to what happens between the athletes when the clock starts these days – even the smallest stories come under huge scrutiny, and in the build-up to the biggest sporting event in the world, it’s no surprise LaCaze’s plight reached so many.

Twitter is a big business – those in the news game have been saying so for years. Yes, it provides a platform for the mundane and trivial, but it’s so much more than finding out what one of your uni mates thought of Prometheus. For many, it’s their number one source of news.

It’s a savvy and effective way to get a message to the masses, and the weekend alone has proved just how powerful the platform is. It’s no longer endearing or charming to act like you don’t know what Twitter is and how it works. (Hey, Andrew Demetriou;  we’re looking in your direction.) Users of the site sent a clear message on Saturday – ignore it at your own peril.


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