This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.
My FYP has been populated with athletes sharing what it’s like to be competing and hanging out in Tokyo during the Summer Olympics — and it’s some of the best use of social media IMO.
There are TikToks about how laundry is sorted and distributed and what the cafeteria is like and the kinds of food they’re serving. There’s also some Olympians who are joking about the crackdown on sex at the Games.
The Olympics have been happening since the 17th century, and never before have we had this kind of access to what it’s like behind the scenes. Never before have we gotten to know athletes on their terms — sharing their lives through their own phones and becoming a unique kind of influencer themselves.
I spoke to two US Olympians, rugby players Cody Melphy and Ilona Maher, who’ve been posting all kinds of behind-the-scenes TikToks in the Olympic Village. Their videos are fascinating. They’re fun, compelling people to watch, and they both responded to my request for an interview so quickly. (If people competing in the Olympics in a time zone halfway across the world can respond this swifty, you should be able to text back, I’m just saying.)
Melphy, 28, and Maher, 24, have had TikTok accounts since before arriving in Tokyo, but their videos have recently gone massively viral because they make competing at the highest level of their sport while posting hilarious, cute content online look so easy. (Trying my hand at either one of these things would send me down a stress spiral.)
What struck me was that they both said that their social media accounts aren’t an extra task for them during what is arguably the most critical time of their lives and careers. They said social media has provided a much-needed relief from both the stressful and the boring parts of being at the Olympics.
“It’s really fun for me. It takes my mind off the games,” said Maher, who’s from Burlington, Vermont, about posting TikToks. “Sometimes I start thinking too hard about the Olympics and our games that I get super stressed. So TikTok has almost been an escape and a way to connect with a ton of people.”
Melphy, who’s from Littleton, Colorado, told me something similar. He said having social media allows him to “express [him]self beyond rugby” and to humanize the intense sport for other people.
Plus, because there are no fans in the stands due to COVID protocols, it gives them that engagement and feedback loop that they’re used to.
“I always remember looking up to [athletes] and wanting to know what it was like. Well, here I am able to share a little bit of our experiences,” said Melphy. “It’s been good to bring recognition to the game and to the Olympics considering there are no fans. The Olympics are the biggest talk everywhere on social media, and it’s got a lot to do with us influencers sharing that with the world.”
He added that “athletes are natural influencers no matter what” because how public their careers are and the amount of discipline it takes to do what they do is often inspiring to a lot of people. So being able to seem ~relatable~ to an ~average~ person is a good way to bridge that gap.
“It seems that people are now coming to the realization that athletes are just regular people too…we just happen to be really good at sports,” Maher said. “We are funny and we have crushes and we do fun challenges.”
She added that many athletes also rely on sponsorships for compensation, so their relationship to being pseudo-influencers or posting on social media can feel really innate.
I’m often pretty critical in these newsletters about how social media is sometimes weaponized and how it’s affecting us long term, but here is a rare moment where I am so, so grateful for social media. Olympic athletes are almost portrayed as deities; I mean, rightfully, for the seemingly superhuman feats they can accomplish. But it’s also created a huge intimacy gap between them and the people who watch them every four years. Being able to get to know them as individuals allows us to imagine them as people we could engage with IRL, or to simply remind ourselves that they aren’t actually superhuman, the Olympics aren’t actually otherworldly, and making it to the Games as an athlete isn’t an unattainable goal. It’s a strange kind of summer camp filled with extremely disciplined people.
I love the dichotomy of being able to watch the sporting events on live TV and then hopping on TikTok to watch athletes film themselves hanging out with their friends or testing out the strength of the infamous cardboard beds for, y’know, the sex that they are probably having. Hopefully safely. Because they’re at adult summer camp — they also just happen to be winning medals for accomplishing physical milestones.