Why Social Media Can Be A Double-Edged Sword For Athletes | Sports | German football and major international sports news | DW
Zhu Yi, the Los Angeles-born figure skater who decided in 2018 to represent China, nearly crashed into the wall when she failed to land a jump in the short program at the Winter Olympics from Beijing in 2022. She avoided physical pain in this case, but not mental pain.
The hashtag #ZhuYiFellDown has been viewed more than 200 million times in a few hours on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. “What everyone said on the internet really touched me,” she told Chinese news agency Xinhua. “The problem now is psychological.”
Sign that the authorities wanted to maintain a positive message around the Olympics, the hashtag disappeared. Weibo says it has banned more than 2,000 accounts and deleted more than 71,000 posts over online abuse against Olympic athletes.
But the problem doesn’t just go away. Cyberbullying is part of the daily life of many athletes.
A study by World Athletics during the Tokyo Olympics revealed alarming levels of abuse towards athletes, including sexist, racist, transphobic and homophobic posts, as well as unfounded doping accusations.
World Athletics chairman Sebastian Coe described the “worrying levels” of online abuse uncovered by the study as “unfathomable” for the athletes targeted.
“This research is disturbing in many ways, but what strikes me most is that abuse targets people who celebrate and share their performance and talent as a way to inspire and motivate people,” said he declared.
Female athletes were the target of 87% of recorded abuse – a familiar sentiment for Canadian tennis player Rebecca Marino. The 31-year-old Vancouverite retired from the sport in 2013 at the age of 22, citing abuse of social media as the main reason for her retirement.
Canadian Rebecca Marino reacts during the 2011 French Open
“Early in my professional career, I found it very difficult to ignore these messages,” Marino told DW. “These comments would be demeaning; comments about appearance, performance, something about your family, and of course lots of swearing that goes with it.”
Inspired by her late father Joe, Marino made a comeback in 2019. Marino says she still limits her phone time and sometimes hides some apps from her home screen, but feels social media platforms are starting to put in implement changes to protect users.
“In these days, social media platforms help athletes manage and limit comments, and athletes have become much more savvy about how to protect themselves,” Marino said. “I now have a strong sense of identity and self-confidence, and my self-worth is not tied to my social media. It’s something I’ve been working really hard on.”
According to Marino, there is definitely room for improvement for social media platforms, and she would rather have a proactive approach to dealing with negative comments than a reactive approach. Relying solely on the individual to protect themselves does not work.
Non-profit organizations such as “Cybersmile” were created specifically to fight against all forms of online bullying and abuse. Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson sought to draw attention to the problem by handing over control of his social media accounts to the cyberbullying charity last year.
Marino says the benefits of social media far outweigh the drawbacks, but the former WTA world No. 38 still describes online abuse as an “unfortunate new reality that we have to deal with”.
Limaye: “I started to hate my body”
Shireen Limaye, the captain of India’s women’s basketball team, has had to face this new reality on more than one occasion. Limaye opened up about how she was bullied and body-shamed after her team’s loss to Japan in the FIBA Women’s Asia Cup 2021 – and faced such comments throughout of her career.
“It started the second I started playing basketball for India,” Limaye told DW. “I noticed people kept saying pathetic things that hurt me. I got direct messages saying I was too fat and looked like a fat villain.”
His performance on the pitch didn’t seem to be affected, but the abuse really hurt.
“It troubled me a lot, I had depression for a while until I told my family about it,” the 27-year-old said. “I started doubting myself and hating my body. I was literally ashamed of my fat.”
The role of social media platforms
While Limaye and Marino said they never considered deleting their social media accounts in light of the online attacks, Eritrea’s first Winter Olympian, Shannon Abeda, said after the Games from Pyeongchang in 2018, he had wondered whether he should maintain his online presence.
But should the responsibility for online harassment be left to the victims of such attacks? The 25-year-old Canadian alpine skier, who declared Eritrean citizenship in 2011 and has since competed in the Olympics in Pyeongchang in 2018 and Beijing in 2022, disagrees with Marino’s view that platforms social media companies have implemented positive changes.
“They have algorithms and a huge number of people, and they don’t even want to bother doing it,” Abeda told DW. “I personally reported horrible comments directed at Mikaela Shiffrin the other day and Twitter just said they found no violation.”
Skier Shannon Abeda leads the Eritrean team at the 2018 Winter Olympics
Social media platforms such as Twitter say they are doing all they can to help and will continue to improve.
Abeda admitted that while some of the comments almost pushed him to do better, the majority of them had a negative impact on his performance, especially at Pyeongchang 2018.
“I didn’t feel safe in my sport,” he said. “I thought if I crashed people were going to attack me more for not finishing. I’m just going to feel more hate.”
Edited by: Mark Meadows