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Abuse Athletes like Zoe Smith At Your Peril

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As the London Olympic games approached, much talk was of the Olympic Athletes' Hub and how athletes would be more connected to their fans than ever before thanks to social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook.

But the social media story that has dominated the media in recent days has been members of the public abusing athletes. In team GB, weightlifter Zoe Smith and diver Tom Daley have both suffered personal abuse on Twitter. Both these athletes are just 18 and both have taken a mature and measured response to the abusive comments. Daley replied to the messages on Twitter and Smith wrote eloquently on her blog about the people who abuse her online:

"[it's] obvious that these people had never done a moment of exercise in their life, or had the intelligence of a potato."

Social media allows the fans to interact with their favourite athletes, but why do the athletes bother if all they get is online abuse? I met Dame Kelly Holmes - winner of two Olympic gold medals at Athens in 2004 - last night at the BT Tower and asked what she thought.

"Social media gives a connection to people - you can follow people you have an interest in. What's great is having that connection to people, it allows you to give something back to people who are predominantly your fans," she said.

Dame Kelly explained that there are pressures on athletes today to build up their profile - with the Olympic games being the best possible time to grab the spotlight.

"The more exposure you get, the more that brands want to get close to you and the more sponsorship you get and this is the world we are in now. You need that [sponsorship] to develop a future career in sport," she explained.

Athletes and sports stars have always faced abuse - whether it was the silent phone calls or letters. Dame Kelly believes that we may be in a better situation now than in previous years because, even with a false username, an online abuser has to work hard to mask where they are accessing the Internet. The law enforcement authorities can work with organisations such as Twitter to gather IP address details and can often pinpoint exactly who the user is, or at least where they have logged in. Of course this is underlined by the police arresting a teenager yesterday - accused of sending abusive tweets to Tom Daley.

Many online commentators have warned that arresting people for comments on Twitter is heavy-handed and threatens the freedom of speech citizens expect in countries like the UK, but the UK already has laws to prevent abuse via communications channels - the Malicious Communications Act of 1988.

But 1988 was not only before the invention of Twitter, it was before the invention of the world wide web itself. So the legislation is hopelessly out of date and we exist in a limbo where many abusers will get away with it and some comments result in jail. Abuse of Team GB and the farce of the Robin Hood airport trial must surely be a wake up call to our legislators?

At the end of the day why do people send abuse to famous athletes anyway. Dame Kelly believes - similarly to Zoe Smith - that it boils down to one thing: "People are jealous - it is all down to pure jealousy. If you are not interested in that person then don't bother tweeting them!"

Personally I think it's a dangerous action to send any kind of abusive message to Zoe Smith. She looks great, but could probably pick up any online abuser and throw him across the room before he has a chance to delete the offending tweet. You have been warned.