Zhu Yi, the Los Angeles-born figure skater who decided in 2018 to represent China, came close to crashing into the wall when she failed to land a jump in the short program at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. She avoided the physical pain in this instance, but not the mental one. The hashtag #ZhuYiFellDown had over 200 million views within hours on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. "What everyone said on the internet really affected me," she told China's Xinhua News Agency . "The problem is now psychological."
In a sign that authorities wanted to maintain positive messaging around the Olympics, the hashtag disappeared. Weibo says it banned more than 2,000 accounts and deleted more than 71,000 posts following online abuse of Olympic athletes. But the problem does not just disappear. Cyber bullying is part of many athletes' daily lives.
A study conducted by World Athletics during the Tokyo Olympic Games revealed alarming levels of abuse of athletes, including sexist, racist, transphobic and homophobic posts, and unfounded doping accusations. World Athletics President Sebastian Coe has described the "disturbing levels" of online abuse uncovered by the study as "unfathomable" for the targeted athletes to deal with. "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," he said.
Female athletes were the target of 87 per cent of the recorded abuse - a familiar feeling for Canadian tennis player Rebecca Marino. The 31-year-old from Vancouver retired from the sport in 2013 at the young age of 22, citing social media abuse as a main reason for her retirement. "At the beginning of my pro-career, I found it very hard to ignore those messages," Marino told DW . "These comments would be degrading; comments on appearance, performance, something about your family, and of course many curse words to go with it."
Inspired by her late father Joe, Marino made her comeback in 2019. Marino says she is still limiting her phone time and sometimes hides certain apps from her home screen, but feels social media platforms are starting to implement changes to protect users. "In our current time, social media platforms are helping athletes manage and limit comments, and athletes have become much more savvy at knowing how to protect themselves," Marino said. "I have a strong sense of identity and self confidence now, and my self worth is not tied to my social media. This is something I have worked very hard on." According to Marino, there is definitely room for improvement for social media platforms, and she would prefer to have a proactive approach to dealing with negative comments rather than a reactive one.
Nonprofit organizations like 'Cybersmile' have been specifically founded to tackle all forms of bullying and abuse online. Liverpool Captain Jordan Henderson sought to draw attention to the issue by handing control of his social media accounts to the cyber bullying charity last year. Marino says the benefits of social media far outweigh the negatives, but the former WTA world number 38 still describes the online abuse as an “unfortunate new reality that we need to deal with".
Limaye: 'I started hating my body'
Shireen Limaye, the captain of India’s women’s basketball team, had to face this new reality on more than one occasion. Limaye has spoken out about how she was viciously bullied and body shamed following her team’s loss to Japan in the 2021 FIBA Women’s Asia Cup — and has faced such comments throughout her entire career. "It started the second I started playing basketball for India," Limaye told DW . "I noticed that people kept saying pathetic things that hurt me. I got direct messages saying I was too fat and looked like an ugly fat guy." Her performances on court appeared to be unaffected, but the abuse really hurt. "It troubled me a lot, I went into depression for some time until I talked to my family about it," the 27-year-old said. "I started having self doubt and started hating my body. I was literally fat shamed."
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 2018 Pyeongchang Games, he was left wondering whether he should maintain his online presence. But should the responsibility of online bullying be left in the hands of the victims of such attacks? The 25-year-old alpine skier from Canada, who got his Eritrean citizenship in 2011 and has since competed at the 2018 Pyeongchang and 2022 Beijing Olympics, does not agree with Marino's view that social media platforms have implemented positive changes. "They have algorithms and massive amounts of people, and they don’t even want to bother to do this," Abeda told DW . "I personally reported some horrendous comments made towards Mikaela Shiffrin the other day and Twitter just said they did not find a violation."
Social media platforms such as Twitter say they are doing all they can to help and will continue to improve. Abeda admitted while some of the comments almost compelled him to do better, the majority of them had a negative impact on his performance, mainly at Pyeongchang 2018. “I did not feel safe in my sport,” he said. “I thought if I crash, people are going to attack me more for not finishing. I’m just going to experience more hate."