A study carried out by World Athletics into online abuse during the Tokyo Olympics found that female athletes were the target of 87 per cent of all abuse, and that 65 per cent of all such abusive posts warranted intervention from social media platforms
In line with its commitment to making athletics a safe and welcoming environment for all, World Athletics embarked on the study to identify and address targeted, abusive messages sent to athletes via social media.
“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.
“These results, which follow the launch of World Athletics’ Safeguarding Policy earlier this month, raise concerns that existing safeguarding measures on social media platforms need to be tougher to protect athletes. Online abuse may cause trauma for the affected individual and can heavily impact athletes’ performances - both in training and during competition.”
The study was carried out in collaboration with Threat Matrix, an initiative by data science company Signify Group Ltd and sports investigations company Quest Global Ltd, and was developed to understand the size, scale and gravity of online abuse targeted at Olympic athletes on Twitter.
To gain an understanding of the level of online abuse in athletics, a sample of 161 Twitter handles of current and former athletes involved in the Tokyo Olympics (derived from a list of 200 athletes selected by World Athletics) was tracked during the study period, starting one week prior to the Olympic opening ceremony and concluding the day after the Olympic closing ceremony (July 15th-August 9th 2021).
In this timeframe, 240,707 tweets including 23,521 images, GIFs and videos were captured for analysis. This included text analysis through searches for slurs, offensive images and emojis and other phrases that could indicate abuse. It also used AI-powered Natural Language Processing to detect threats by understanding the relationship between words (allowing it to determine the difference between “I’ll kill you” and “you killed it”, for example).
The study revealed 132 targeted discriminatory posts from 119 authors, with 23 of the 161 tracked athletes receiving targeted abuse. Out of the 23 athletes who received abuse, 16 were women with 115 of the 132 identified abusive posts directed at female athletes. Female athletes received 87 per cent of all abuse.
Also, 63 per cent of identified abuse was directed at just two athletes - both black and female - while the two most common categories of abuse were of a sexist (29 per cent) and/or racist (26 per cent) nature, accounting for 55 per cent of all identified abuse.
"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," said World Athletics president Sebastian Coe.
“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.”
Unfounded doping accusations made up 25 per cent of abusive messages, while 10 per cent consisted of transphobic (nine per cent) and homophobic (one per cent) posts; 89 per cent of racist abuse was targeted at US athletes, despite them representing only 23 per cent of the study set.
World Athletics will be conducting further research in this area and has used the findings of this survey to introduce an Online Abuse Framework for its own social media channels to ensure they are environments free from abuse.
Some athletes had also spoken publicly about some of the online abuse they received during the Games, including American 400m hurdles champion Sydney McLaughlin, who broke the world record in that final.