Vimal Sankar: TikTok on the clock with role to play in IOC youth drive –

Horniness inside the Olympic Village has been an open secret for many years. From the hundreds of right-swipes on Tinder at the infamous Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics to the record-breaking 450,000 condoms distributed at the Rio 2016 Summer Games, there have been plenty of stories to support the rumours of debauchery.
It is quite natural that these athletes, among the fittest people on the planet and at their physical peak, tend to get frisky when they come together every four years, especially considering the enormous pressure they are under to deliver.
That they are all humans first, with urges like everyone else, is a fact often forgotten in the quest for glory.
This is why, when Tokyo hosted the Olympic and Paralympic Games last year in unprecedented circumstances because of the coronavirus pandemic, organisers were very specific about the social-distancing rules.
It meant that athletes had to avoid “unnecessary forms of physical contact”, which was a new and indirect way of telling them to keep it in their pants.
Another new element at the Tokyo Games was the presence of the hugely popular Chinese social media platform TikTok, a video-sharing app and something that a majority of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) beloved Gen Z fans live and breathe by.
Together, the two new elements may have played a vital role in setting a trend for the consumption of Olympic Games content in the years to come.
It all started with the rumours of cardboard beds, dubbed as the “anti-sex beds”, at the Tokyo Athletes’ Village.
While the cardboard frames and polyethylene mattresses were in fact targeted at sustainability, the fake news that it was designed to stop athletes from being intimate unsurprisingly spread quickly, until sports stars started debunking the myth. One of them was American women’s rugby player Ilona Maher.
The then 25-year-old posted videos of herself and team-mates performing CPR and doing yoga poses and WWE-style slams to test the beds. Maher ended the video on TikTok by saying: “And for this last take, Nicole and I will be having sex.”
Whatever happened afterwards is not for us to worry about, but the video generated 1.7 million likes on the social media platform.
Maher’s post was among the many viral videos from Tokyo, where athletes gave fans a different spin on the Olympic Games. More and more joined in with the trend to give the public a glimpse of life inside the Village.
Australian water polo player Tilly Kearns, with more than 380,000 TikTok followers, posted a video explaining what Olympians ate during the Games.
From sanitising rules to all the cuisines in the world that one can think of, Kearns’ video provided a peek into the cafeteria for those who were wondering.
While the most popular athletes on TikTok may not be the most decorated stars on the field, the platform brought together a community that wanted to know the happenings behind the scenes.
This is something that the IOC thinks could bring out the most unique and interesting aspects of the Olympics.
TikTok is a platform that is really driven by community content,” Leandro Larrosa, the digital engagement and marketing director of the IOC, said. 
“We saw this play out during Tokyo 2020 – where athletes were filming and sharing their individual experiences as well as interacting with the Olympic community.
“At the same time, we saw fans, followers and stakeholders from across the Olympic Movement joining in via user-generated content in huge numbers.
“With people unable to travel to Tokyo due to COVID restrictions, we saw the space become a place for athletes, supporters and stakeholders to come together and share the experience – for example, through curated hashtag campaigns such as #OlympicCountdown and #OlympicSpirit.”
With 5.2 million followers, the official Olympic TikTok channel’s description is very apt – “The Olympics, like never before”.
The rise of TikTok indeed is providing content like never before.
Since the anti-sex cardboard bed rumours, it is not just Olympic athletes who have dominated TikTok and other social media spaces. Compilations of Olympic video content from television stations and other media platforms have been trending with the hashtag #Olympics.
A clip featuring comedian Kevin Hart and rapper Snoop Dogg’s commentary on equestrian events at Tokyo 2020, on NBC Universal’s streaming service Peacock, must be up there with the best.
Describing a video where a dressage rider is competing, Snoop joked about the horse doing a “crip walk” and said: “This horse is off the chain! I’ve got to get this motherfucker in a video.”
The official Olympics page is concentrating on making the most of its exclusive content, such as “did you know” pieces and facts, as well as training routines, dance trends and highlights. The many side pages, sharing their content, could also be a game-changer for the IOC.  
“We have tailored our approach and content to reflect the uniqueness of the platform,” Larrosa said.
“On TikTok, our emphasis is on creating a shared space that highlights and celebrates the people at the heart of the Olympics. We do this through taking our uniquely Olympic content and creating around popular TikTok trends, sounds and hashtags.
“Collaboration and co-creation is also key for us, with Olympians, fans and the wider Olympic family. As early adopters of the platform, this also applies to TikTok itself, where we work closely with the team to build engagement opportunities.
“For example, our global collaboration with TikTok has now spanned two back-to-back Olympic Games, bringing together the Olympic Movement including official broadcasters, National Olympic Committees, Organising Committees and Olympians through the #OlympicSpirit challenge and a bespoke hub the community could access when they searched for Olympics.”
While the IOC’s idea was to create a unique space to “celebrate and support their favourite athletes”, TikTok has also become a platform for speaking up on more serious issues.
At the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, ski jumper Anna Hoffmann of the United States hit out at organisers for making female athletes use a different-sized hill compared to men, even though men and women had competed on the same large hill all season, including at the World Championships.
For an organisation with a focus on gender balance and equality at administrative and other levels, questions of this sort can make life difficult.
Activism is another part of the Olympics on TikTok.
For instance, American rower Kendall Chase regularly uses the platform to engage with fans of the sport, providing both rowing and LGBTQ+ content. With many athletes coming out in recent times, such videos could inspire more to do the same.
However, only a few years ago all of this would have been tricky.
The IOC’s strict copyright policy meant that athletes and officials were not allowed to post photos from the Village, and any content had to be pre-approved by the organisation. All of that changed before the Summer and Winter editions of Olympics in Tokyo and Beijing.
“Athletes and others holding accreditation to the XXIV Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 are encouraged to share their experiences with their friends, family and supporters via social and digital media and to preserve the memories of their attendance at the Olympic Games,” read the IOC’s social media guidelines.
This social media indulgence and dominance is not surprising.
While Instagram stories took over Pyeongchang 2018, it was TikTok’s time to shine from the Tokyo Games onwards.
By then, the app had already surpassed Instagram in terms of popularity, especially among Gen Z. And the Chinese platform bodes well for the IOC’s obsession of “attracting youth”.
For years now, it has been preaching on why it wants to focus on the younger generation. With TikTok, it seems to be on the right path.
“We work with the world’s biggest media and broadcasting platforms to allow as many people as possible to experience the Olympics,” Larrosa said.
“With a largely millennial and Gen Z community, TikTok is an important space for us in continuing our ambition of directly connecting with younger audiences.
“The Olympic TikTok channel launched in December 2019.
“Since then, it has become one of our fastest-growing social media handles.
“We have seen huge global fan engagement particularly with the #OlympicSpirit, which launched ahead of Tokyo 2020 and continued to run through Beijing 2022, reaching 9.2 billion views.”
With more urban sports being planned for future Olympic Games programmes, it looks like TikTok athletes are in for a great ride.
Kick flips and 360s in slow motion are certain to attract a fair few views.
The foundations to use the platform successfully have been laid by the IOC and TikTok, like any other type of social media, is a powerful medium that can bring about change.
On the other hand, there were multiple reports which suggested that hosts China had hired influencers during Beijing 2022 in a bid for positive coverage. This was reportedly to boost its image, concious of well-documented allegations of human rights abuses, particularly against Uyghur Muslims.
While there is no doubt about the reach of TikTok, the question of what to believe does not have a simple answer.
How long until pressing issues such as the war in Ukraine, carbon footprints, mental health, doping and transgender policies are discussed frequently on TikTok? This is something to ponder, with the IOC’s stance on many of these topics debatable.
But for now, seeing the goofy and human side of these athletes is certainly refreshing to Olympic fans around the world.
Before joining, Vimal worked as a senior reporter with The New Indian Express for four years. He has covered football, athletics, and other Olympic sports in India and attended international events such as the U-17 FIFA World Cup, Asian Wrestling Championships, and major events in badminton and boxing. He also had a brief stint with Wisden India. Vimal graduated with a distinction in MSc Sport Management from Loughborough University in September 2021. He got his Bachelor’s in Journalism from Madras Christian College in 2015.
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