World Athletics finds female athletes faced a worrying level of online abuse during 2020 Summer Olympics

A study conducted by World Athletics to identify and address online abuse returned some concerning findings as to the level of abuse aimed at women.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athletics - Women's Marathon - Sapporo Odori Park, Sapporo, Japan - August 7, 2021. General view of athletes in action REUTERS/Feline Lim
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athletics - Women's Marathon - Sapporo Odori Park, Sapporo, Japan - August 7, 2021. General view of athletes in action REUTERS/Feline Lim

World Athletics published the findings of an online abuse study conducted during Tokyo 2020. One of the key findings of the study was that female athletes received 87 percent of all identified abuse, with 70 percent of all abuse being targeted at women.

According to World Athletics, “the study revealed disturbing levels of abuse of athletes, including sexist, racist, transphobic and homophobic posts, and unfounded doping accusations. It also unequivocally highlights the greater levels of abuse female athletes receive in comparison to their male counterparts.”

The study was aimed at identifying and addressing targeted, abusive messages sent to athletes through social media channels.

A sample of 161 Twitter handles owned by current and former athletes involved in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games was used by World Athletics as a means to gain data on the level of online abuse in athletics.

The study, conducted in conjunction with Threat Matrix, began one week prior to the opening ceremony and concluded the day after the closing ceremony.

Within the study period, 240,707 tweets including 23,521 images, GIFs and videos were captured for analysis according to World Athletics. The tweets were then analyzed for abuse through the use of text analysis and artificial intelligence.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athletics - Women's High Jump - Final - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - August 7, 2021. Marie-Laurence Jungfleisch of Germany reacts after her jump REUTERS/Phil Noble
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athletics - Women's High Jump - Final - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - August 7, 2021. Marie-Laurence Jungfleisch of Germany reacts after her jump REUTERS/Phil Noble

Ultimately, 23 of the 161 tracked athletes received targeted abuse. Of those 23 athletes, 16 were female. Messages sent to those 16 athletes accounted for 115 of the 132 targeted discriminatory posts. Two black, female athletes accounted for 63 percent of the identified abuse.

Commenting on the findings of the study, World Athletics President Sebastian Coe stated, “when we published our Safeguarding Policy earlier this month, I said athletics clubs, schools and community sports environments should be safe and happy places for those in our sport.”

“In a world where we share so much of our lives online, this must apply to the virtual, as well as the physical world.”

“This research is disturbing in so many ways but what strikes me the most is that the abuse is targeted at individuals who are celebrating and sharing their performances and talent as a way to inspire and motivate people.”

“To face the kinds of abuse they have is unfathomable and we all need to do more to stop this. Shining a light on the issue is just the first step.”

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athletics - Women's Shot Put - Medal Ceremony - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan – August 1, 2021. Silver medallist, Raven Saunders of the United States gestures on the podium REUTERS/Hannah Mckay
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athletics - Women's Shot Put - Medal Ceremony - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan – August 1, 2021. Silver medallist, Raven Saunders of the United States gestures on the podium REUTERS/Hannah Mckay

The study also found that 89 percent of racist abuse was targeted at US athletes, in spite of American athletes representing less than a quarter of the total sample.

Max Siegel, CEO of USA Track&Field, commented, “the entire USATF community is grateful to World Athletics for conducting this vital survey which has confirmed unfortunately what we have all known for a long time: US athletes are disproportionately targeted for abuse and hate on social media.”

“Increasing evidence indicates that this is driven by a huge rise in prejudice against race, gender and social status. Simply put, this type of behaviour is disgusting and utterly unacceptable. USATF remains committed to working alongside World Athletics, our athlete and constituent community, social media proprietors, the US Center for SafeSport and law enforcement to eliminate abuse and make our sport safe and welcoming for all.”

Of the abusive posts identified by the study, 65 percent were deemed gravely abusive, which was a distinction given to posts that warranted an intervention from Twitter.

One serious case of erotic fixation targeting one female athlete and four cases of egregious racism were also found during the study. World Athletes stated that posts that had been deemed to have crossed a criminal threshold had been passed on to law enforcement in the relevant country.

In light of the findings gained from the study, World Athletics pledged to remove hate speech, bullying and other misconduct from the comments sections of their channels, block people bringing abuse and hate to their channels, report the most serious cases to relevant authorities, ensure their channels continue to cover and celebrate diversity and equality in sport, and make the social media platforms used by members a safer and more equal environment for everyone.

World Athletics stated they will conduct further research in this area and have used the findings of the study to introduce an Online Abuse Framework for their own social media channels to ensure they are environments free from abuse.

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