Elite athletes are mainly associated with great achievements and respect. We think of them as people who take the pleasure of glory, their millions of fans, a high social status and many more elements of a life worth to admire. However, athletics is not always a joyful and safe environment. Athletes encounter hate speech and many of them are targeted with trolling and abusive messages.
The case of football is eloquent, well-illustrated in a study conducted by UNESCO (2015) to track racism in the most popular sport ever. The study reports numerous incidents, different forms and the evolution of discrimination and racism during the last two centuries, with the focus on recent decades. As a respond to this incompatible with sports spirit phenomenon, since 1997 significant initiatives, campaigns and actions have taken place within the framework of the ‘European Year against Racism’. Nevertheless, discrimination and other hostile behaviour have not disappeared neither from football nor from other sports. Notably, they are present, even strengthened, by the spread of social networks.
The visible dimensions of hate speech targeted to athletes via their social media accounts led experts to investigate the problem. The World Athletics Platform published findings of a study conducted during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. The aim of the study was to identify and address targeted, abusive messages sent to athletes via social media and the results are impressively sad. In the timeframe of July 15th until August 9th, 240 707 tweets including 23 521 images, GIFs and videos were captured for analysis. According to the publication, female athletes received 87% of all abuse while the two most common categories of abuse were of a sexist (29%) and/or racist (26%) nature, accounting for 55% of all identified abuse. After a long list of the categories of abuse, the analysis of the recipients of abuse and the frequency of posts, one apparent conclusion is that of a huge rise in prejudice against race, gender and social status.
Οne more argument to address the phenomenon of online hate speech through education is expressed by the World Athletics’ president. He said:
“In a world where we share so much of our lives online, this must apply to the virtual, as well as the physical world. This research is disturbing in so many ways but what strikes me the most is that the abuse is targeted at individuals who are celebrating and sharing their performances and talent as a way to inspire and motivate people. To face the kinds of abuse they have is unfathomable and we all need to do more to stop this. Shining a light on the issue is just the first step.”
Colour? What colour? Report on the fight against discrimination and racism in football. UNESCO (2015), at https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000235721?posInSet=13&queryId=4f8dc828-911b-4a5d-95f3-9e7275a7adc0
Social Media Abuse of Sports Stars, at https://www.pickswise.com/anti-social-media/
World Athletics publishes Online Abuse Study covering Tokyo Olympic Games, at https://worldathletics.org/news/press-releases/online-abuse-study-athletes-tokyo-olympic-games