2021 Olympic's Most Valued Player is Social Media

Viewers have more access to athletes than ever before, making some and breaking others


Social media content is giving the pandemic Olympics an unprecedented level of intimacy.

Australian Jessica Fox showed off how she repaired her canoe with a condom on TikTok before the competition.

A snapshot of British diver Tom Daley knitting in the stands made headlines, inspiring many memes and Twitter responses. His TikTok video of the Team GB sweater he made was watched over 790,000 times in 24 hours. 

Unknown athletes became internet sensations by capturing their personal experiences at the Games in real-time to share with an increasingly curious audience.

Ilona Maher, Team USA’s tie-dye bucket-hat-wearing women’s rugby player, embraced the media’s title for her — the Thirsty Olympian. The nursing graduate student’s TikTok about wanting to talk to the “tall, foreign, demigod lookin athletes in the Olympic Village” nabbed over 4 million views. 

Twitter users struggled to explain to one another the astonishing results of the men’s 400-meter hurdles race, where Norway’s Karsten Warholm and the United States’ Rai Benjamin both broke the previous world record, clocking in at 45.94 and 46.17 seconds, respectively.

Erik Shoji, a men’s volleyball player from Hawaii, “has 1.1 million views on a video documenting arrival procedures at the Tokyo airport. A second video of Shoji testing the cardboard beds with teammate and roommate Taylor Sander received 3.2 million views,” per AP News.

That’s right: social media popularized — and completely debunked — the so-called “anti-sex beds” in the Olympic Village. Japanese company Airweave provided the Olympics’ first renewable material beds made from cardboard.

“Paul Chelimo, a U.S. distance runner, speculated on Twitter that the beds were unable to support more than one person and were ‘aimed at avoiding intimacy among athletes,’” says The New York Times.

A gymnast from Ireland, Rhys McClenaghan, called the claim “fake news” and posted a video to Twitter jumping on his bed to demonstrate its strength. His post was reposted by the official Olympics Twitter account with the message: “Thanks for debunking the myth.”

While platforms like Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram helped capture much of the behind-the-scenes moments in the lives of Olympic athletes, the platforms also caught the lows of the 2021 Olympics. 

A caption on Simone Biles’s Instagram post after gymnastics preliminary trials was repeatedly referenced in the debate following the announcement that she was leaving the competition.

In the post, the 24-year-old gymnast wrote she felt “the weight of the world on [her] shoulders.” She withdrew from nearly all the events she was set to compete in, citing mental health concerns.

Gymnastics is generally a popular sport among viewers and their eyes quickly fell on other members of the team.

Sunisa Lee surpassed one million Instagram followers after winning the all-around gold medal. 

Four days later, Lee took third place on the uneven bars and announced she would leave Twitter. “This medal probably means more to me than the all-around gold medal did, just because bars is my thing. To mess it up like this, I was just kind of sad about it,” she said in an interview.

She said she avoids reading criticisms of her performance, explaining “Instagram is not as bad because I can’t really see what people say, but [on] Twitter it’s just so easy to see everything. So I’m probably going to have to end up deleting that.”

This change mirrors American track gold medalist Sydney McLaughlin’s strategy. She told The New York Times, “A lot of that is outside things I can’t control and I just tried to minimize it. I stayed off social media, stayed in my room, talked to friends and family and stuck to what I knew.”

The New Jersey native broke the 4×400 meter hurdles world record — completing her race in 51.46 seconds.

Social posts by Olympics accounts on TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Weibo generated 3.7 billion engagements, notes NBC. The Olympics’ social media accounts have a combined total of 75 million followers.

These figures do not include the cumulative digital impact of each individual athlete’s personal pages. Even on more traditional online platforms, the Tokyo Games are thriving. 

“More than 100 million unique users had visited Olympic digital platforms or used the Tokyo 2020 app through the first week of the games,” says NBC New York. “U.S. rightsholder NBC has notched 2.5 billion streaming minutes of Olympics content across all its digital platforms … a 77% increase from the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games. The first week in Tokyo was the highest-ever weekly usage for streaming platform Peacock.”

Keeping up with athletes on social media has become an integral part of their fans’ Olympic viewing experience. For athletes, the impact of online platforms seems to be pretty mixed. Many have increased agency and are reliant on media interviews or team statements to connect with their supporters. In some instances, little-known sports gain new exposure as their highlights and players go viral. Still, social media’s omnipresent and unrelenting nature can be too much pressure for some competitors. 

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