Winter Olympics 2018: Star athletes forced to develop strategies to cope with vicious trolling

One American skier has a no Twitter, no Facebook, no Instagram and no Snapchat rule while she's in Pyeongchang

Rick Maese
Saturday 17 February 2018 18:44 GMT
Shaun White was trolled for allowing the American flag he draped around his shoulders after he won gold to touch the floor
Shaun White was trolled for allowing the American flag he draped around his shoulders after he won gold to touch the floor (Getty)

Considering they're world-class athletes, most Winter Olympians toil in relative obscurity. But during a two-and-a-half-week stretch every four years, they're prime-time television stars - with the accompanying adulation and inevitable haters on social media.

While the criticism mostly comes from anonymous screen names, athletes say they've had to develop techniques and strategies to process negativity and not allow trolls to knock them off their game - in or out of competition. Some ignore it, some use it for motivation, and some self-impose a complete social-media blackout.

Regardless of the approach, they all need a strategy for dealing with the most intense attention they've ever faced.

Freestyle skier Aaron Blunck
Freestyle skier Aaron Blunck

"The reality of it is, those are just people on the internet who basically are doing nothing but sitting there and looking for a reason to hate on you," said freestyle skier Aaron Blunck, a two-time Olympian who will compete in the halfpipe here. "If there's a reason to, they're going to. You got to just say, whatever - it's someone on the internet."

Of course, some athletes invite more haters than others - because of who they are, what they represent or the things they say.

Some notice the negativity, take it in and sometimes spit it back out. Figure skater Adam Rippon tweeted this week: "To all those who tweet at me saying that they 'hope I fail', I have failed many times in my life. But more importantly, I've learned from every setback, proudly own up to my mistakes, grown from disappointments, and now I'm a glamazon bitch ready for the runway."

Rippon, one of two openly gay male US athletes competing in Pyeongchang, has drawn plenty of attention at these Olympics for his comments about Vice President Mike Pence and his willingness to speak his mind on matters both trivial and weighty. It's made him a big online target - a surefire medal winner if social media engagement were an Olympic sport.

"I would say that, heading into this competition, I've never received so many messages of support of people telling me my story has helped them, my story has resonated with them," Rippon said this week. "On the flip side, I've never received so many messages saying, 'I've never rooted for somebody to fall.' Which is darling."

Freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy came out as gay in 2015. He was initially scared to check in on social media but was overwhelmed by the messages of support he received. Still today, he said, the kind and generous far outnumber the cruel and vulgar, though the latter two are still plenty common.

He has 205,000 followers on Twitter and 752,000 on Instagram, "and I can scroll like this forever of the people I've blocked," he recently explained. Blocking people - keeping them from seeing his posts or sending him comments - is usually easier than engaging or giving those people an open line of communication.

Adam Rippon is one of two openly gay US male athletes competing

 Adam Rippon is one of two openly gay US male athletes competing

"I'm so immune to it now," Kenworthy said. "It's funny because the more I block it, the less I see it. It's funny. I'll have someone comment, 'You're a [gay slur].' Okay, you're blocked."

There are times, though, when he'll engage. Kenworthy isn't shy about wading into political waters or debating social issues. His teammates often notice Kenworthy with his phone, engrossed or even agitated.

"Sometimes I kind of look at it, like, 'Ahh, dude,' " Blunck said. "He'll be staring at his phone, like, 'I'm in this Twitter argument.' Well, you didn't have to say anything. Be the bigger man and let it go."

(Kenworthy knows how to troll, too. He fractured his thumb in a training run Thursday, and in a tweet Friday he joked the silver lining was he no longer had to shake Pence's hand.)

For some athletes, the solution is complete withdrawal. Mikaela Shiffrin, the 22-year-old wunderkind ski racer from Colorado, won a gold medal and turned in a heartbreaking fourth-place finish in back-to-back days this week. Regardless of the result, one vital part of her post-race routine did not change: no Twitter, no Facebook, no Instagram, no Snapchat.

Shiffrin's social-media ban is a preservation strategy, limiting distractions and muting the incessant noise that seems to spike to deafening volumes during the Olympics. "When I'm here, I don't actually see what people are talking about," she said shortly after winning gold in the giant slalom Thursday. "I haven't been on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook for two weeks now."

Some athletes can't help it, or they see such engagement as an opportunity to bring attention to an issue, often for a larger audience. Figure skater Vincent Zhou retweeted a post from a television sports anchor this week who claimed figure skating is not, in fact, a sport. Zhou couldn't resist.

"Your job is to be a sports reporter," he tweeted. "Figure skating is not a sport to you. Stick to reporting on 'real sports', do your job, and we'll do ours."

Freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy came out as gay in 2015

 Freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy came out as gay in 2015

Still plenty of others will bite their tongues, stuff their phones in their pockets and try not to engage. Devin Logan is a freestyle skier who's competing in the slopestyle and halfpipe events here. She's plenty familiar with social-media trolls who "want to get you down, especially being a female skier."

The positive comments, even if they outnumber the negative ones, don't always resonate quite the same way. Logan said she tries her best to focus on the nice things people have to say. And the mean stuff? She tries to ignore it.

"I mean, there's no point," she said. "You just rile people up, and there's no point to talk back, because it's kind of what they want. . . . That's all you can do to shut the haters up."

Some of the young athletes have talked about logging off, stepping away from social media entirely. But it's not that simple. Not only is it a valuable way to stay connected with fans - particularly between Olympics, when mainstream media focus their attention elsewhere - but it's an important tool to reach consumers. The athletes are also brands, and they have sponsors that expect them to be visible and engaged.

"What it all comes down to, you're advertising yourself as a brand," said freestyle skier Torin Yater-Wallace, an eight-time Winter X-Games medallist who's competing in the halfpipe in Pyeongchang, "and social media is the new media. So you make it work."

Yater-Wallace said he likes using social media to give fans a peek into his life, but for others, it's more of a business tool. Snowboarder Shaun White is savvy in his use of social-media platforms, often using them to promote his sponsors, his businesses and himself. He doesn't typically use it as an engagement tool with fans, and certainly not detractors.

On Wednesday in Pyeongchang, White was enjoying his third Olympic halfpipe title. Had he logged on to Twitter, he would've seen a flood of celebratory messages - and also plenty of critical ones. Many people were upset over two-year-old sexual harassment allegations that resurfaced, and others took offence to something they saw on the television coverage: White made the rounds after the competition with an American flag, occasionally allowing it to the touch the ground.

"This freak dragged our flag on the ground," one wrote in all-caps. ". . . Comeback? Way to go? Redemption? Wait until the Army studs grab this freak and kill him."

White was apparently too busy with post-race responsibilities and hadn't yet caught up with the furore on social media.

"I definitely didn't mean any disrespect," he later said of the flag fracas.

Whether they delete their apps during the Olympics, engage or simply ignore, Olympians try to balance the bad with the good. They try to forget the negative messages as quickly as possible, but there are others they'll remember forever. For Kenworthy, social media are an opportunity to share part of his story that snowboarding and the Olympic telecast can't necessarily tell.

"I still get messages every day," he said, " 'Hey, just wanted to say how much your article meant to me. It helped me come out.' 'Seeing how visible you are on Instagram with your boyfriend, it gives me hope.' It really is very, very nice. It makes me feel, of anything I've done in my life, that's the one thing I'm the most proud of because I think it's helped people and it's not just been self-serving."

The Washington Post

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