These knitters wouldn’t unravel under the glare of U.S. Olympic Committee

The sweater triathlon will go ahead. The mitten medley will proceed as scheduled. The spinning wheels will hum for the handspun heptathlon, and looms will clack in the weaving vault.

But let’s be clear: There is no link, none at all, between these activities and the Olympic Games.

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Last week, the U.S. Olympic Committee sent a cease-and-desist letter to a bunch of knitters who had found a creative way to get together and watch the Olympics. While copyright infringement notices happen all the time, this one seemed a particularly far-fetched target for the USOC’s wrath.

The knitters — and crocheters, spinners and other fiber enthusiasts — are members of a social-networking site called Ravelry, which has been a haven for fiber artists since 2007: It’s a bulletin board, marketplace and discussion forum rolled into one.

In 2008, Ravelry members launched the Ravelympics, a tongue-in-cheek event that has continued every two years since, in which crafters set themselves specific goals, start their projects during the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games and have to have them finished by the end of the Closing Ceremonies.

Not any more — at least not under that name.

“We believe using the name ‘Ravelympics’ for a competition that involves an afghan marathon, scarf hockey and sweater triathlon, among others, tends to denigrate the true nature of the Olympic Games,” said the USOC’s letter, which Ravelry’s founder, Casey Forbes, posted on the site on June 20. “In a sense, it is disrespectful to our country’s finest athletes and fails to recognize or appreciate their hard work.”

“Yeah,” one knitter commented on Ravelry, “because it’s so much easier to knit a sweater than run 40 yards.”

The USOC may be too big to fight — the Ravelympics will henceforth be known, after a lot of debate and a member poll, as the Ravellenic Games. But that doesn’t mean Ravelers didn’t try. Ravelers are not your grandmother’s knitters; they spend a lot of time on computers and they know how to use social media. The pushback on Twitter, in particular, was so intense that the USOC found itself backtracking — and even ended up having to apologize, in writing. Twice. The first apology wasn’t good enough.

In fairness, the USOC didn’t necessarily mean to pick on knitters. They pick on everybody.

“We send out hundreds of these letters a year,” said Patrick Sandusky, the chief communications and public affairs officer of the USOC.

So far, the committee has managed to change hundreds if not thousands of Olympic knockoffs, including the Rat Olympics, the Hip Hop Olympics, the Redneck Olympics and the Olympigs, although the last name conjures up more of a vision of porcine Greek deities than of anything pertaining to athletics.

But in turning on Ravelry, it encountered an audience it wasn’t prepared for.

For one thing, it is bigger. The site has more than 2.2 million registered users, although only about 40,000 or so log on in any given month. For another, it is younger and tech-savvier. The Internet has proven to be fertile ground for knitting because it allows people to exchange tips, pictures, videos and techniques; even before Ravelry’s founding, knit blogs were among the Top 10 most popular blog types.

Forbes, a programmer, and his wife, Jessica, founded the site in response to her wish for some kind of central place to keep track of her projects and various Internet-gleaned tips. The site’s popularity took them by surprise — today, it supports them and two employees, mainly through sales of fiber-related advertising — but Forbes’s technical acumen has been one reason for its success.

So when Ravelry users feel dissed, they don’t retreat to their firesides to nurse their grievances. They take to the phones, to their blogs and to the media — the story appeared everywhere, from NPR to Gawker to the New York Times’ Olympics blog — and to Twitter. The day after the letter appeared on Ravelry, Sandusky personally answered more than 500 angry, knitting-related tweets.

“This was an unprecedented response,” he said — one emphatic enough to warrant a written apology on the USOC’s Web site.

But Sandusky’s claim that the letter had been a standard form letter and that no insult had been intended wasn’t good enough for the knitters. The original letter, after all, cited specific Ravelympics events. The wave of protest continued until Sandusky posted a nearly abject followup: “[W]e sincerely regret the use of insensitive terms in relation to the actions of a group that was clearly not intending to denigrate or disrespect the Olympic Movement. We hope you’ll accept this apology and continue to support the Olympic Games.”

This may not quite be a story about David and Goliath; while the Ravelers got their apology, they end up having to change the Ravelympics name. It is, though, a story about a fundamental misunderstanding about trademark and infringement in the Internet age (an issue, ironically enough, that gets debated all the time on the Ravelry forums with regard to sharing, copying and selling copyrighted patterns).

The Ravelympics saw itself as promoting the Olympic Games, as making a gesture of goodwill and international understanding. The USOC sees the issue only in terms of protecting a brand that is its sole source of income, but protecting it in a manner that, as this story shows, is going to be increasingly difficult for it to defend as it moves forward.

“I think they’re on the wrong side of history on this,” said Kay Gardiner, the New York-based co-author of the knitting blog Mason-Dixon Knitting who also is a lawyer. “The whole trademark infringement thing in the world of the Internet. . . . You had 2 million knitters enthusiastically watching the Olympic Games. They should be happy about that. You can’t buy that.”

Gardiner has organized her own response to the ban, urging people to make and send hand-knitted socks to Stephen Colbert to draw his attention to the issue.

“It’s absurd,” she said of the ban, “which is why I thought immediately it was a Colbert story.”

The Ravelry group “Socks for Stephen” has more than 500 members. A couple of people have already sent socks to Colbert’s studio.

Ravelry is also a fascinating demonstration of how the Internet can stimulate creativity. The open exchange of ideas leads people to do more than they might have done on their own: learning to spin; hand-dyeing yarn and designing a pattern to use with it. Group events such as the Ravelympics have spotlighted particularly extreme and wonderful creative acts. One 2010 competitor took two weeks off work so she could create a complex, multicolored wool blanket. Another designed and knitted a sweater emblazoned with a pair of heraldic woodchucks and a proud “Canada 2010,” then had it photographed and wrote up the pattern so others could purchase it, all before the Closing Ceremonies had ended — and all to the applause of other Ravelers who hailed them as “Olympic heroes.”

Fortunately, other sporting events have shown themselves more tolerant of the kind of fandom Ravelry offers. Many baseball teams now sponsor annual “Stitch and Pitch” nights when knitters can buy reduced tickets in a special section of the ballpark. And every June, spinners around the world tune in to France’s famed bicycle race while taking part in the “Tour de Fleece.”

So far, the Tour de France has not responded.

 
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