Simone Biles’ shock exit from the gymnastics teams event at the Olympics last week led to the five-time Olympic medallist being both praised and pilloried on social media for prioritising her mental health.
“Choke! The great athletes do not choke and quit under pressure,” one person posted. “You wanna blame your failures on mental illness. Hahahaha you’re no GOAT f... off,” wrote another.
Biles cited the pressure of social media when she withdrew from the competition, saying “there were a couple of days when everybody tweets you and you feel the weight of the world”.
Simone Biles watches after exiting the team final.Credit:AP
Abuse on social media is a growing issue for athletes and not just at the Olympics. There were 12,500 racist tweets and posts sent to three Black players on England’s football team after England lost to Italy in the Euro Championships final in July.
The abuse is often racist and Australia’s eSafety commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, says her office’s work with the AFL monitoring abuse Australian football players cop online found Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people were three times more likely to receive targeted online hate and harassment.
The research found women were much more likely to receive misogynistic abuse that was sexualised and violent. “It’s not all out there in the open,” Inman Grant says. “In fact, a lot of the abuse goes directly to the players’ [direct messages] on Instagram and other places.”
The eSafety Commission is “certainly watching” what happens at the Olympics.
“If you identify as LGBTQI, or you have a disability, you’re also three times as likely to be targeted with online harassment,” she says. “I think we can expect with the Special Olympics you will see that kind of targeting as well, or particular athletes who are openly gay, bi or trans.”
Inman Grant says social media has a lot of promise in promoting a variety of voices, “but to the extent that these voices aren’t protected, it actually results in suppression of speech and creates a really ugly playing field”.