Viewpoints: Who won social media gold at the Rio Olympics?

Every four years, the summer Olympics inspires and motivates athletes and spectators across the globe, with Rio being no exception. Since the first ‘social media’ games in London in 2012, athletes and brands alike are increasingly using social media to elevate their brands, increase their following and secure opportunities.

Since the Beijing games, social media users have sky rocketed from 100 million people on Facebook in 2008 to over 1.5 billion users this year. Twitter too has seen a substantial increase from 6 million users to over 320 million in only eight years.

Social media opens up a huge opportunity for athletes to engage with their fans directly and gives them the chance to stand out from the other 11,500+ athletes partaking, whether a medallist or not.

As we have learnt from this year’s Olympics, it is not just the gold medals and glory that grasp millions of people’s attention; some athletes have become social media stars and losers unrelated to their sporting success. Here’s a list of the trending athletes, for better and for worse:

1. Fu Yuanhui, Chinese swimmer and bronze medallist

Prior to the Olympics, Fu Yuanhui was relatively unknown yet her enthusiasm winning bronze for China has turned her into a social media superstar.

Fu’s sense of humour and exaggerated facial expressions have made her a celebrity overnight and she now has 3.5 million followers on the Chinese microblogging website Weibo, up from about 550,000 before the Olympics. Not only have cartoons been made reflecting her various facial expressions but Twitter has even devoted a ‘moment’ to her. It is without doubt that Fu’s much-loved personality and social media popularity will play an important factor as she continues to seek sponsorship.

2. Ryan Lochte, US swimmer and 12-time medallist

Despite winning a gold medal in the 200m freestyle relay, Ryan Lochte has come away from the Olympics with a huge amount of negative press. After a drunken night with some fellow teammates, Lochte filed a false police report stating he had been robbed at gunpoint. However, security videos appear to show the athletes held up by security guards after vandalising a petrol station bathroom. Lochte’s drunken antics have not only resulted in a severely damaged reputation but also the loss of all his major sponsors including Speedo USA, Ralph Lauren, Syneron Candela and Airweave. It was recently reported that he was trying to hire Justin Bieber’s ‘spin doctor’ to help improve his image. Given he has just secured a new sponsor, this will be an interesting one to watch.

3. David Katoatau, Kiribati Weightlifter

Despite not winning a medal, David Katoatau has not only put his face but also his country on the map. Before viewers came face to face with the Kiribati dancing weightlifter, most were unaware of the tiny group of islands that exist south of Hawaii. Katoatau dances to raise awareness of the threat climate change poses to his homeland which could be lost to sea in as little as 50 years. He has not only won the hearts of spectators through his dancing and charm but has also attempted to educate billions of viewers on the need to take climate change seriously.

4. Paul and Gary O’Donovan, Irish rowers and silver medallists

It was not just their silver medal for Ireland that made Paul and Gary O’Donovan superstars but also their hilarious post-race video to Ireland’s national broadcaster RTE. The video went viral having received over 5 million views and it was even reported that over 10,000 people were expected to attend the brothers’ homecoming. The O’Donovan’s not only won Ireland’s only medal at this year’s Olympics but also made history for the most amusing interview!

There are, of course, many more athletes who gained mass media attention, both positive and negative, for antics nothing to do with their sporting ability - from body language, protests and facial expressions to marriage proposals and bad sportsmanship.

In today’s fast-paced online world, it is not just gold medals that gain attention and kudos. Social media has created unthinkable opportunities for athletes and countries to position themselves on the worldwide stage. Key learnings from this year are:

1. Inspire and generate change by being quirky or having a unique story to tell

2. Get personal – relate to the audience by giving a glimpse into your daily life

3. Never forget nothing is off the record during live broadcasts

4. Have a digital crisis plan ready – you never when something is going to go wrong

5. Be transparent – never state wrong or misleading information to the public

Clara Liddell is associate director at Racepoint Global, a member of the Council of Public Relations Firms of Hong Kong (CPRFHK)