Samsung project had the right Olympic spirit behind it, if not the athletes

Samsung's Genome Project was a great idea in theory.
There’s one Olympic sponsor that was conspicuously silent in the U.S. media the last two weeks, and that’s Samsung.

The Korean company declined my request to sit down and talk about its marketing program around the London Games, and that’s too bad because I’ve been thinking about what Samsung did a lot since I arrived in London three weeks ago.

The company developed a Facebook application last spring called the Genome Project that allowed users to see their connection to past and present Olympians. It was a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon thing, but instead of connecting actors, it connected individuals to Olympians who trained in their hometown or graduated from the same college.

It was a great idea, but it faltered in its execution when it decided to feature Olympians who hadn’t granted the company permission to feature them. That opened the door to a lawsuit from 18 Olympians who allege their names and likenesses were used without their permission.

I’ll let a judge sort out who is right and who is wrong in the lawsuit. But I wanted to point out that Samsung was right in the philosophy of its program, that sharing a connection with an Olympian makes watching that athlete compete more entertaining.

I put the idea to the test last week and it took me to see a sport I never thought I’d see — equestrian.

My connection to the sport is as convoluted as any Samsung’s Genome Project might have served up. My brother-in-law is from Albemarle, N.C., and his father works at a farm and horse stable there that host one of the South’s largest equestrian events. It’s also the home of Canadian equestrian team member Rebecca Howard.

When I toured the farm last year, I watched Howard working with the horses there for a few minutes and was told that she was hoping to make the Canadian Olympic team. It wasn’t until I arrived here that I checked to see if she’d actually done it.

She competed in individual eventing — the competition that includes dressage, a cross country test and jumping — and I headed out to see her ride last week. Unfortunately, I arrived for the finals and she didn’t qualify.

But the very fact that she was in it was enough to get me to equestrian. And watching a giant animal leap through the air over obstacles as the rider leans forward and the crowd gasps is more entertaining than I expected.  

Howard wasn’t the only connection that made me pay attention to events I didn’t plan to watch. I learned over here that a classmate at Wake Forest University had a sister, Evelyn Stevens, who made the USA Cycling team, so I watched her in the road race the first Sunday of competition. I also made a point of going to watch the U.S. play Nigeria in basketball, the most lopsided game of the Olympics, because it featured Wake alums Chris Paul and Al-Farouq Aminu.

Those tenuous connections made my Olympics better, and that’s what the Samsung Genome Project was supposed to do for everyone.

It’s a shame it didn’t work out that way.

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