The TikTok-Tokyo Olympics: how athletes like Tom Daley and Liu Shiwen became social media influencers at a Games with no fans
- With spectators banned and athletes confined to the Olympic Village, apps like TikTok and Douyin are helping sport stars connect with the outside world
- Popular posts show Australia’s Sam Fricker diving into the cafeteria and Tilly Kearns debunking ‘anti-sex’ beds, trick shots from China’s table tennis coach Liu Guoliang and an outpouring of support for US gymnast Simone Biles
Little more than a week later and his already sizeable following had almost doubled thanks to the photogenic 19-year-old’s posting of videos in which he trains, talks to fans and chomps on chocolates in the athletes’ village cafeteria. And Fricker’s big moment – he competes in the men’s 10m platform on Friday – is still to come.
Likewise proving a hit online is Fricker’s fellow Australian Tilly Kearns, a water polo player who has been sharing videos on TikTok and Instagram about the food on offer and the infamous cardboard beds that some social media users have branded as “anti-sex” (a theory Kearns herself debunks). One of Kearns’ videos, showing the athletes’ dining hall, has already attracted 10 million views.
While some of the action has been on Instagram, where British diver Tom Daley has been posting his practice dives and podium selfies after his victory in the synchronised 10m event, the gold medal for influencing arguably belongs to TikTok and its Chinese market version Douyin. On both platforms Olympians including Daley have been gaining millions of views and likes per video – a level of exposure unimaginable even as recently as the 2016 Games in Rio.
The apps, owned by ByteDance, exploded in popularity worldwide in 2020, driven by millions of users sharing their experiences of living in isolation during extended coronavirus lockdowns.
TikTok, which launched in 2017, broke records when it was downloaded 315 million times in the first quarter of 2020, and a further 120 million times in April 2020 alone. It now has 1 billion active users.
Douyin, which launched in September 2016, a month after the Rio Games, has been downloaded 600 million times.
The format of TikTok and Douyin, which enable users to share short videos, have helped drive their popularity with both the athletes and their fans. Athletes, who are not permitted to leave the village other than to compete, have been able to use them to reach out to a world beyond their Olympic bubble. Fans, meanwhile, have been given behind the scenes insights into their heroes’ lives, training routines and – in many cases – their road to medal glory.
Jonathan Hutchinson, a lecturer in online communication and media at the University of Sydney, said it was no surprise that Olympians had become “a kind of influencer” during the Games, given the attention focused on them.
“What we are seeing are some very clever social media users who are leveraging this exposure and ‘paying it forward’ by investing in their online lives after the Olympics,” he said.
He added that given that the athletes were from a generation familiar with digital media practices and mistakes others had made, “they are trained in understanding what is appropriate to publish, what is considered entertaining and informative, and most importantly, what not to publish”.
While the apps have helped to give an unprecedented insight into the lives of the more than 11,000 athletes at the Games, they have also highlighted some of the darker sides of a high-pressure world where, even if the stadiums are largely empty, countless critics lurk online.
But the platforms have also had a positive effect, becoming a place for fans to lend their support to athletes like American gymnast Simone Biles and Chinese diver Shi Tingmao, both of whom recently opened up about their personal struggles.
Shi, who won gold medals in both the individual and synchronised 3m divisions, revealed she had been on the verge of quitting diving altogether following a struggle with depression, while Biles became a trending topic after she pulled out from several events last week, citing the need to protect her mental health.
Many of the over 500 million TikTok views that followed Biles’ decision were accompanied by posts from fans offering their support.
“Competing in a poor mental space could lead to emotional or physical trauma. I’m happy she’s doing what’s best for her,” one user said in a comment that received more than 6,000 likes.
Coaches are influencers too
On Douyin, it is not only the athletes but their coaches too who have become rising stars.
China’s table tennis coach Liu Guoliang has amassed 3.5 million followers and 4.6 million likes, despite having published only 20 posts since February 2018.
Some of Liu’s videos, such as those in which he hits three balls at once or fires a shot through a narrow gap, have inspired trending copycat challenges. Other popular videos show him playing sport with his daughter and endorsing his sponsor Coca-Cola.
Liu has also used Douyin to thank members of the public who helped relief efforts following flooding in Henan province, China, that killed hundreds of people.
Liu himself is from Xinxiang, a city severely impacted by the July floods.
Like some of the athletes, Liu has not managed to avoid some of the downsides of life as an influencer.
While most commenters supported his statement on the floods, some users accused him of “empty talk”.
“You’re a Xinxiang person. Have you donated money?” wrote one.
Still, whether it is on TikTok or Douyin, there are plenty of warm messages to drown out any negativity.
The most recent Douyin post by Chinese table tennis player Liu Shiwen, which was published on July 16 before the Games began, has taken on a new lease of life since the 30-year-old lost her gold medal match to Japan last week in the mixed doubles. Beneath videos of the five-time World Cup champion preparing for the Games are a flood of positive comments.
“Don’t be sorry to anyone! You’ve tried your best,” wrote one user. “We didn’t do anything but share your glory. If there’s one thing we’d like to say to you, that is ‘thank you’!”