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Why social media can be a double-edged sword for Olympians

·8-min read
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TOKYO — Ariarne Titmus arrived at the Olympics on the cusp of superstardom. She would, over a week here in Tokyo, swim for multiple gold medals and experience indescribable joy. Naturally, the 20-year-old Australian felt some desire to broadcast that joy.

And so, on Tuesday, after Titmus dethroned American standard bearer Katie Ledecky in the 400-meter freestyle, she gave her best friend her Instagram password.

She didn’t log in herself to post a photo because Titmus, in preparing for the Games, deleted every social media app from her phone. And she isn’t the only one. American swimming dynamo Caeleb Dressel also said he’s “not on Instagram right now.” Dutch cycling medalist Annemiek Van Vleuten said she “closed myself from social media.”

They are, on one hand, human, and humans crave social connection. Olympians are no different. Many have spent time on Instagram, Twitter and TikTok while isolated here in Tokyo. Many interact with fans and friends.

Many also know that social media has become their most powerful personal brand-building tool during fleeting moments in the spotlight. Breakout gold medalists, such as Carissa Moore and Sunisa Lee, have posted regularly. Lee, within 24 hours of winning the women’s gymnastics all-around title, topped 1 million followers on Instagram.

But as experts and athletes both attest, social media can also be dangerous. “It can sometimes be a bit overwhelming,” Titmus said. It connects athletes to external expectations, which some convert to pressure, stress and fear. Simone Biles has spoken this week about feeling “the weight of the world,” and worrying about what others think. Dressel, who often documents his life on Instagram, has said that doing so during the Games “is energy that I don't need to be exerting.”

It is all part of a dilemma unique to the modern Olympian, many of whom are only relevant outside their niche for two weeks every four years. Do they stay active on social media, build their brand and try to monetize their brief time in the spotlight? Or do they prioritize mental health, steer clear of hateful trolls and avoid sinking energy into something that can be so counterproductive?

American rugby player Ilona Maher has added more than 500,000 followers to her Tik Tok account in the last few weeks. (Tik Tok)
American rugby player Ilona Maher has added more than 500,000 followers to her Tik Tok account in the last few weeks. (Tik Tok)

The positives of social media

Not long after the dramatic 100-meter hurdles final at last month’s U.S. Olympic Trials, Christina Clemons began sifting through a deluge of social media messages.

There were 10 times as many about the dangly Cool Ranch Doritos earrings she wore during the race than there were about her snatching the final spot on the U.S. Olympic team by less than one hundredth of a second.

Not one to let an opportunity slip through her fingers, Clemons told her 5,000 Twitter followers, “I need y’all to do your thing! We need to blow Doritos mentions UP.” Nearly 27,000 people liked her tweet, leading Doritos to sign Clemons to an endorsement deal and unveil a custom bag of Cool Ranch chips with her face splashed across it.

“This is the time for Olympic athletes to take advantage of the power of social media,” said Doug Shabelman, CEO of Burns Entertainment, a marketing firm that matches celebrities with endorsement opportunities. “Being active while you’re in the spotlight is really your chance to earn extra followers and earn extra dollars for your post-Olympics career.”

An athlete’s social media channels, according to Shabelman, are “the No. 1 aspect” considered by corporations when weighing potential partners. Authenticity is as important to corporations as follower count and audience engagement.

“I am human,” Sha’Carri Richardson tweeted on July 1 after learning that she had been barred from competing at the Olympics because of a positive marijuana test. The 21-year-old American sprinting phenom later explained that she ingested marijuana while coping with the death of her biological mother but also apologized for her mistake and resisted the urge to complain about her penalty.

Sports business experts told Yahoo Sports earlier this month that the sympathetic attention Richardson received actually made her more marketable than before her positive marijuana test. Beats by Dre has since featured Richardson in a new commercial announcing Kanye West’s upcoming album.

Simone Biles’ social media transparency about her ongoing mental health struggles has also drawn praise. In an Instagram story posted on Friday, Biles adamantly pushed back against unfair criticism, writing “For anyone saying I quit, I didn’t quit. My mind and body are simply not in sync.”

As proof of how dangerous that could be for her health and how damaging that could be for her team, Biles showed viewers behind-the-scenes video of her training on the uneven bars and struggling with the “twisties.” In one video, Biles comes up one and a half twists short and lands directly on her back on heavy pads. In the other, she lands less awkwardly but still a half a twist short.

“The way she has gracefully handled herself and the strength and courage she showed, that’s far bigger than any sport,” said Matthew Lalin of Starpower, which matches companies in the healthcare sector with celebrity endorsers. “Now the power of social media allows her to control the message and convey the follow-up.”

Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 9 slideshow embed
Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 9 slideshow embed

The negatives of social media

There’s a perception that social media is nothing but bad for an athlete’s mental health. Experts argue that’s simplistic and unfair.

Social media use can provide entertainment, acceptance or emotional connection, Texas-based sports psychologist Hillary Cauthen told Yahoo Sports. That’s especially important for Tokyo Olympians, who are typically isolated from their loved ones because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“It’s a way to connect, a way to tell stories, a way to have a shared experience,” Cauthen said. “This is their way to communicate back to their support group, ‘Hey look at how cool this is. This is what the Village looks like. This is what my training looks like. Here’s what I’m eating.’ ”

Many of the most-watched Olympic videos on TikTok have come from athletes themselves. Olympians have posted videos of silly dorm room competitions, jumping on cardboard beds or failed attempts to flirt.

“It is not easy to go up to a pack of six, seven Romanian volleyball players and shoot my shot,” U.S. women’s rugby player Ilona Maher said in one video. “I mean, I’ll work on it. But I don’t know if that’s in the cards for me.”

Of course, there are downsides to social media, especially for athletes with a negative sense of self worth. Scathing jabs and insults from anonymous keyboard warriors can confirm self doubt, diminish self worth and send an athlete into a depressive cycle.

“If it rings true to your own self doubt, then it makes it bigger in your head and makes it feel like the whole world feels that way about you,” Cauthen said. “That can be really problematic.”

Among the most egregious examples of social media abuse occurred after a Chinese athlete appeared to make fun of herself on Weibo for failing to make the final in an air rifle event. Dozens of accounts on Weibo were suspended after users mocked Wang Luyao for falling short of expectations and lashed out at her for not taking her loss hard enough.

Skim through the Twitter mentions of Biles, Richardson and other high-profile U.S. athletes, and it doesn’t take long to figure out that American Olympians face similar social media hostility. That’s a big reason why one member of the USOPC’s 13-person mental health task force would like to see more emphasis on trauma-informed media and social media training.

“When it comes to social media for athletes, you have to have a strategy for how you utilize it,” said Shannon Decker, co-founder of The Speedy Foundation for suicide prevention. “If you don’t have a strategy, it’s going to bite you in the ass.”

Caeleb Dressel has mostly refrained from posting to his Instagram account during the Olympics, though he did find time to promote NordicTrack. (@Caelebdressel/Instagram)
Caeleb Dressel has mostly refrained from posting to his Instagram account during the Olympics, though he did find time to promote NordicTrack. (@Caelebdressel/Instagram)

Devising a plan

Sunisa Lee, the newly crowned Olympic gymnastics all-around champion, has posed with her gold medal on TikTok, Instagram and Twitter.

Maher, the suddenly TikTok-famous rugby player, has gained more than 500,000 followers in the past month by posting a clever new video every few hours.

Even Ledecky, one of the Olympics’ most overburdened athletes, took time to post a couple of medal stand pictures to Instagram.

Says the seven-time gold medalist: “Those are great memories, and you want to share ’em with your friends.”

So what’s the right approach to social media for athletes competing in the Olympics? Focusing on brand building while the world is paying attention? Deleting the apps from your phone for a few weeks to avoid the doubters? Somewhere in between?

The way Cauthen sees it, the answer isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.

“If social media is part of their world, then the most important thing is education,” Cauthen said. “Athletes need to understand the impact it can have on them but then have the autonomy to make their own choices.”

Dressel’s approach to social media during the Olympics might provide the best of both worlds.

There are seven new posts on Dressel's Instagram page since he arrived in Tokyo, three of which are paid advertisements from corporate sponsors. And yet Dressel insists he's "not posting anything" while he chases five gold medals. The swimmer says perusing social media is “energy that I don't need to be exerting."

It’s a luxury he has when there’s someone doing it for him. At the Tokyo Olympics, Dressel has hit upon a social media strategy that allows him to have his cake and eat it too.

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