Online, Athletes Are Bigger Than the Olympic Rings

·5 min read

The way Facebook executives explained it to potential Olympians at a recent virtual event, everyone heading to Tokyo is competing in a quadrathlon of sorts. “You won’t just be an athlete,” Facebook director of global sports partnerships Peter Hutton said on the “Global Athlete Connect” stream. “You’ll be a creator, an influencer and a brand ambassador.”

Before the Opening Ceremony, though, there’s an entirely different competition taking place, as social networks vie for Olympians’ time.

The 2012 Olympics were supposedly the first “Social Media Olympics” (or “Socialympics,” which The New York Times tried to make a thing). Each one since has been the most ‘grammed, tweeted, snapped and streamed Olympiad ever.

Even still, this summer’s opportunity stands out. Since 2018, TikTok and Clubhouse have emerged as contenders while the existing titans built their own clips, audio and live-streaming offerings. Since 2016, ad spending on social has more than tripled. Add to all that the impact of COVID-19, which will limit fan and journalist access to athletes in Japan, and “social inevitably is going to be a cornerstone of how people consume the Tokyo Olympics,” Wasserman EVP and agent Circe Wallace said, adding that every athlete should be aware of the opportunity in front of them. “It is an aspect of their business they cannot deny. It’s another element of what is required to be a successful athlete.”

Naomi Osaka has built a following on TikTok, while Serena Williams is often more likely to be found on Snapchat. British diver Tom Daley is diarying his Olympic journey on YouTube. On Instagram, Simone Biles has more followers than the official Olympics account. She’s also the subject (and executive producer) of a new Facebook Watch docuseries.

Fortunately for the social contenders, the race for attention isn’t winner-take-all. “Most athletes are savvy enough to realize that they need to be good at all of the platforms and have a presence on all of them,” said Brittany O’Hagan, who handles athlete partnerships at Twitter.

O’Hagan said the so-called 2020 Olympics have been a focus since early last year, before the event was postponed. Now, Twitter has its new live audio tool, Twitter Spaces, to offer athletes looking to connect with fans. O’Hagan said the company is also educating athletes about the site’s health and safety features with many Olympians preparing for their biggest bit of fame and all that comes with it, positive and negative. Safety was also a topic of Facebook’s presentation, including a walkthrough of Instagram’s new features to limit abusive direct messages.

Individual athletes—and action stars especially—have generally been the quickest to grasp the online opportunity. With skateboarding making its Olympic debut, Wallace said those competitors (who often first made a name for themselves as content creators) will be some of the most active in Tokyo.

On the Facebook stream, executives described this as “The Golden Era” for athletes, emphasizing the ways savvy competitors could take advantage of social media to extend their impact “for the rest of your life.”

Three years ago, it was snowboarder Chloe Kim who claimed a gold medal and 100,000 Twitter followers in a single day. Her online popularity helped her land cameos in a Maroon 5 video and a Charlie’s Angels reboot, to go with a cadre of top-tier sponsors. More recently, she used her platform to speak about anti-Asian hate.

But her tweets about ice cream and cereal weren’t manufactured, Kim’s agent, Lowell Taub, said, and that was key. “I still would come back to authenticity,” he said. “I’m not going to tell an athlete who wants to put up the blinders and focus on the task at hand, ‘Hey, make sure you’re posting when your flight lands.’”

However, part of his job does entail keeping up with what social platforms are doing, checking in at least quarterly to see what’s working and if any of his clients would be a good fit for product rollouts. “If we’re doing our job right, we’re in pretty frequent communication with those platforms,” he said.

Taub, the CEO of Stoked Management, is also tasked with helping his athletes follow the Olympics’ evolving social media policies. The Games have loosened some restrictions on sponsored posts during the event, and the IOC officially encourages people to share their experiences online, though it maintains several rules about what can be captured where and how it all can be published.

Athletes can record video with “non-professional” equipment inside Olympic venues but can’t share captured content of areas used for competition or ceremony. They can only post “for personal purposes.” A clip of athletes watching an event with fans in the background is allowed; one with the event in the background isn’t. Prep footage could be allowed, depending on the interpretation of “Olympic Games Content.” Overall, the rules have come a long way since 2010, when the Olympics started by providing the “Definition of a Blog.

During the Facebook event, four-time gold medalist Sue Bird had advice for athletes regarding some of the guidelines. “At things like the Opening Ceremony, they try to tell you, No pictures, no video,” she said before covering half her mouth with her hand. “Just do it.”

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