There is a lot to love about the internet. It's brought us some amazing things, among them the ability to collaborate digitally, connect beyond borders, and access the deepest wealth of knowledge known to man. People can become experts on any topic, share their thoughts with any person, and buy, sell, or create whatever they please -- and all without leaving the comfort of their home.
But this year's Olympic games in Rio highlights some of the worst parts of the internet. The same things that make the web so useful and good can work to humanity's detriment. International events like the Olympics, in particular, tend to bring out the Internet of Bad Things. Namely:
- Cyberbullying: Athletes are bullied online for minor and sometimes completely arbitrary reasons.
- Body shaming: Athletes, especially female ones, are shamed for their appearance instead of being applauded for their feats.
- Sensationalism: Juicy news stories are concocted and spread with little regard for journalistic integrity and no consideration of their impact... all in the name of clickbait.
Athletes caught in the crossfire of these online tactics will be remembered for the internet's criticism as much as, if not more than, their accomplishments and hard work. As demonstrated by my infographic from the previous Summer Olympics, the Google results for top athletes are filled with articles branding them for the internet's petty criticisms of athletes (Gabby Douglas's hair) and unwarranted judgements (Michael Phelps' out-of-pool mistakes) rather than their amazing achievements.
This summer's Olympics in Rio has demonstrated much of the same, highlighting the worst aspects of internet culture rather than the best. Here are some salient examples from the Rio events, and why they paint the internet in a particularly nasty light.
The open nature of the internet, and especially social media platforms like Twitter, make it easy for online users to target athletes with hateful messages -- sometimes anonymously, sometimes not. These people don't fear consequences and are quick to dehumanize athletes for this reason.
- Gabby Douglas: American gymnast and champion Gabby Douglas was criticized endlessly for her hair last Olympics and the criticisms did not stop this year in Rio. When Douglas didn't smile or put her hand over her heart during the national anthem, she was slammed for being "unpatriotic" even after her sincere and immediate apology. No matter what she did, she became a magnet for nasty comments, and avoided the internet completely as a result.
Keep in mind, Gabby is a young woman under immense pressure. Working tirelessly for the US gymnast team, she failed to do as well as she wanted -- a crushing reality for any athlete. Adding a barrage of hateful comments on top of the stress of being both an Olympian and a woman in the public eye is a particularly cruel.
- Yohan Diniz: French race walker Yohan Diniz appeared to soil his pants early on in his 50 km race walk, somehow finishing in eighth place in spite of the incident. Though embarrassing, certainly, this is far from an uncommon occurrence in race walking or running. But instead of sympathizing or admiring his persistence, the online peanut gallery made a laughing stock out of him for his involuntary bowel movement.
Again, this is an Olympian athlete (and human person) who has been working tirelessly to represent his country in the world's most competitive race walk. After collapsing, defecating, and bleeding, the man finished the race, a feat any reasonable person would consider heroic.
Body shaming is a particularly ugly extension of cyber bullying and shares many of its ugly qualities. It's sad that Olympic athletes, the pinnacle of fitness, are subjected to shame over their appearance. And yet, people feel the need to put down athletes if their bodies deviate from what they consider normal or attractive.
- Simone Biles: When Simone confidently posted a photograph of her and her fellow gymnasts sporting bikinis at the beach, most expressed their awe for the young ladies' chiseled abs. At least one Twitter user found it appropriate to respond by saying "Y'all think this is attractive? Lmaooo." Luckily, this body shaming incident was essentially negated when the naysayer was swiftly and mercilessly shut down for his absurd implication that Simone -- an Olympian that has a gymnastic move named for her -- would care about what a random internet commenter thinks about her body.
- Alexa Moreno: Another gymnast, another incident of body shaming. Mexican gymnast Alexa Moreno honored her country with a historic 12th place finish, but was greeted online with cruel comments about her weight (not that it matters, but Moreno weighs just 99 pounds). Twitter users sent out pictures of pigs, along with tweets about hot dog contests, diets, and other nasty comments. As with Biles, Moreno had plenty of defenders. But the fact that anyone would think to bully an Olympian gymnast in this vile fashion is absurd.
The reason any of us know about these ugly instances of internet debauchery has to do with an online culture of sensationalism, wherein barely consequential stories blow up for the clicks. This leaves a permanent stain online equating star athletes with the words of their foolish critics. Sensationalism is also the reason athletes' personal stories are often blown out of proportion.
- Ryan Lochte: This year, American Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte made international news for lying about a night on the town in Rio. Lochte said he and his teammates were held up and robbed in Rio, a fabrication that would have floundered immediately under a simple fact check. Obviously, Lochte should not have lied, and this is not meant to defend him. But forget about Lochte for a second. Why is the media so quick to blow up a story that sounds absurd on its face and hurts the face of RIO before doing a little more digging? This might very well be the biggest story of this olympics which to me speaks to the more disappointing elements of the internet than to the incident itself.
- Usain Bolt: Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, often regarded as the fastest man alive, has been constantly surrounded by a web of news stories related to his personal life. The internet is thick with accusations of cheating, pimping, and other alleged sex scandals. Even if it's all true, its relevance is questionable at best. We don't know anything about Bolt's relationship with this girlfriend, after all, and breathless news coverage is hardly the best way for her to find out about his infidelity. But publications need clicks and will chase and spread the juiciest stories they can find, hence the sensationalist approach to coverage of Olympians like Bolt.
It's worth noting that the alleged actions of Lochte and Bolt are objectively bad, while the female Olympians mentioned did literally nothing to warrant the internet's ire.
What They Should Actually Be Remembered For
While salacious stories, gossip, and trolling were the stars of the Rio Olympics when the internet is concerned, each athlete is more than the blabbering of their critics. The bottom line: they should be remembered for what they've accomplished and not what's been said by their detractors.
So here's to what they have accomplished, and the hope that it will someday overshadow the rest:
- Gabby Douglas: The first African American gymnast to win the individual all-around event. Won gold medals for the US in the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics.
- Yohan Diniz: The world-record holder for the 50km race with a time of 3:32:33, set in 2014, even after stopping to wave a Portuguese flag to homage of his late grandmother.
- Simone Biles: Has claimed a record three straight world all-around titles. Is the most decorated American gymnast with 19 Olympic and World Championship medals; has a signature move named after her -- "the Biles."
- Alexa Moreno: Competed in the uneven bars, floor exercise, beam, and vault discipline in Rio. Finished 31st in a division where Mexico is largely underrepresented.
- Ryan Lochte: Second most decorated male swimmer in Olympic history with 12 Olympic medals: six gold, three silver, and three bronze.
- Usain Bolt: Reigning champion and Olympic legend who has smashed records at the 2008, 2012, and 2016 Olympics, holding a total of nine gold medals.
With the internet more ubiquitous than ever, it's unfortunate that a legacy can be influenced by unfounded ugliness spewed online. But the web, like everything else, is what we make of it. When we use it the right way, it can be the Internet of Beautiful Things. When we abuse it, near-literal gods and goddesses among men -- Olympians -- are reduced to the lowest common denominator. I don't think I'm alone when I say we can all do better next time around.