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British speed skater Elise Christie had her eyes on gold when she tried to pass Italian skater Arianna Fontana on the inside of the Sochi short track. The pair collided, tumbled, and took out Korea’s Park Seung-hi. In the aftermath, however, it seems Christie’s biggest mistake did not happen on the ice. It happened the day she logged on to Twitter.
A deluge of abusive tweets—including death threats—bombarded Christie. Much of the fire came from angry Korean fans. For the sake of her sanity, Christie was forced to shut down her Twitter account.
There’s a tendency to think of cyberbullying as a youth phenomenon—teens harassing each other on Facebook and Twitter. It’s this theory that leads some adults to dismiss online bullying as the cruelty of youth gone digital: “we were teased as kids; they’ll grow out of it.” In the wake of Sochi, the sporting world demonstrates it isn’t only young people; social media is a platform for shocking displays of anger and hate from adults and youth alike.
During the Sochi opening ceremonies alone, there were an estimated 10,000 Olympic-related tweets per minute. The 2012 Summer Games in London generated more than 150 million tweets.
We talked to former Team Canada hockey player Jennifer Botterill about the rise and impact of cyberbullying in athletics. Because if elite athletes can break down under a barrage of taunts from strangers, what hope do kids have against the class bully and her Twitter account? In Vancouver, in 2010, Botterill assisted the winning goal that saw Team Canada take the gold from the U.S. As a commentator in Sochi, she saw athletes glued to their smart phones.
“In four years, from Vancouver to Sochi, everything has changed. Social media was present in Vancouver, but not nearly to this extent,” Botterill says.
“Now most athletes are tweeting numerous times a day.” And they’re learning that any slip-up can draw instant online ire.
When Canadian speed skater Brittany Schussler posted a selfie with Vladimir Putin, the Twitterverse was outraged at her willingness to pose with the autocratic, anti-gay Russian leader. Schussler was so heavily flamed it’s a miracle the ice didn’t melt the next time she strapped on her skates.
Sometimes, failing to deliver the hardware is enough to bring out the worst in fans. When British diver Tom Daley didn’t make the podium at the 2012 Games in London, one odious critic tweeted at Daley that he was a disappointment to his deceased father.
Worse than the armchair coaches are the trolls—people who post just to stir up vitriol. When African-Canadian defenseman P.K. Subban took the ice sporting Team Canada’s new black uniform, hatemongers spewed racist jokes.
Trolls told Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff they wanted her thrown in a Russian jail for being a lesbian.
“It used to be you’d get yelled at in the arena, but then you could go home. Now it follows you home,” says Botterill. The same thing is often said of the classroom.
Anyone who’s ever played a sport knows that training your body is only half the battle. But how do you get your head in the game when a stranger just threatened your life? Some can’t.
Vancouver’s Rebecca Marino was ranked 38 amongst all the world’s tennis players when she quit the game last February. Marino told a press conference she was grappling with depression. “Social media has taken its toll on me.” Marino believed she had thick skin. But endless tweets telling her to “go die” and “burn in hell” pierced her armour.
In December, Hockey New Brunswick cracked down on cyberbullying. The minor hockey association invoked new rules for social media. Anyone—players, parents, or coaches—posting inappropriate comments will face penalties.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to put all the trolls in the penalty box.
Botterill says she avoided cyberbullying by keeping social media separate from her sporting life. Going into Vancouver, she switched off the tweets. Botterill believes educating athletes about managing social media has become as important to their training as technique or nutrition.
But the onus should not be on players alone. Fans need to infuse their passion with civility.
Would you stand in front of an athlete who’s just had a heartbreaking loss, look them in the eyes, and tell them they’ve let down their dead father?
In addition to its new rules, Hockey New Brunswick urges people to follow one simple practice: give yourself 24 hours to cool down before posting a comment.
It’s a good principle, not just for the sporting world, but for the online activities of adults and youth alike. Before you post an angry comment about someone else—be it a friend or sports icon—wait a while. Use the time to ask yourself: Would I say this to their face? If the answer is no, you shouldn’t tweet it either.
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