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With the success of the recent film, I, Tonya, the once-villainized Olympic figure skating champion Tonya Harding is finally getting her chance to set the record straight. In 1994, a whopping 12 years before the birth of Twitter, Tonya’s side of the story was, for the most part, held captive by the media she despised. The media, she has said, “abused me.”
Fast forward to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio that caught four-time Olympian Ryan Lochte on camera—not being held up by gunpoint as he claimed, but rather, getting into a drunken altercation with security guards at a gas station. The video went viral across social media platforms, resulting in the #LochMess meme that quickly took over the Internet. Almost as soon as news of the video was posted online, Lochte was able to respond in real time, issuing an across all of his social media platforms directly to his fans.
Would Tonya’s legacy ultimately have been different had she had such power on the heels of Nancy Kerrigan’s fateful knee-bashing? Would #SaveTonya trending on Twitter have made the difference between what ended up being a 23-year wait for redemption, compared to the almost immediate bounceback of Lochte who appeared on “Dancing with the Stars” after lying to the authorities?
Social media has allowed Olympic athletes to create stronger personal brands by allowing direct access to the public, debunking the perception that our athletes are superhuman, but rather normal people and fallible human beings just like us. Look at the YouTube channel for the , where nearly 50,000 subscribers gain intimate access to Maia and Alex Shibutani, the intriguing brother-sister ice dancing pair who are favorite for PeyongChang. Who are they if not “just like us” when cooking their favorite meals (rigatoni with spicy sausage, anyone?) with Brian Boitano.
For traditional media, this kind of gifted content and access almost has the stories writing themselves. However the impact of social media isn’t merely valuable for Olympians using platforms to create opportunities beyond sport. Citizen journalism surrounding the Olympics has also made room for accountability for its participants, as well as traditional media.
In December, the International Olympic Committee made the announcement that government officials from Russia would be barred from the 2018 games, and the Russian anthem and flag also wouldn’t be making an appearance. Immediately after the controversial announcement, people took to Twitter—journalists, commentators, fans and most notably author Nikolai Staibov—posting memes showing “Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms writing ‘just as IOC asked for.’” Then, on February 1, just over a week before the start of the games, doping bans on 28 Russian athletes were overturned.
While Russia may be benefitting now from the larger conversation happening on social media surrounding the ban, when Russia held the Winter Olympics in 2014, social media quickly dispelled the farce of the $50 billion Olympic Village that was built in record time and touted by the Russian as grand. Pictures using the hashtag #sochiproblems were posted by journalists showing partially constructed rooms with no running water, loud noises at all hours, and inedible food.
Complaints of poor on-the-ground execution surfaced by social media aren’t only specific to Russia. In the weeks leading up to PeyongChang, Olympics volunteers turned to social media to expose the nightmarish conditions on the ground. The Globe and Mail broke the story that 60 petitions had been filed listing everything from crude working conditions and water leaks in their housing, to the lack of hot showers, drinking water and transportation. All that in addition to terrible and insufficient food.
Pictures circulated online causing reaction of locals to comment on the mistreatment of the volunteers. Jeong Areum, a writer for one of Seoul’s most popular food shows, told The Globe and Mail, “These volunteers are doing their work through a sense of service, but if their meals are so terrible, they would feel mistreated. Seeing these photos, I think they're being mistreated too."
In a matter of days after the pictures were posts, Shinsegae Food, the catering sponsor for the games issued an apology and began working to make changes and improvements.
From Sochi to Rio to PyeongChang, the story of the Olympic Games is no longer solely in the hands of mainstream media. Social media reports from journalists, citizens, volunteers, and the athletes themselves relay events as they happen, giving an inside, on-the-ground look in real time as the events unfold.
As for Tonya Harding? In today’s cult of the celebrity on social it’s possible that Tonya would have been an Instagram pop culture star, not a punchline. Social gives athletes like Tonya the ability to shape her own narrative and share her side with the public.