Social media gives Olympic athletes year-round platform
Brianne Theisen-Eaton, of Canada, competes in the women's long jump final during the athletics competition at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto on Friday, July 24, 2015. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, August 1, 2016 12:24PM EDT
TORONTO -- Packing for the Rio Olympics was an all-day affair for Canadian heptathlete Brianne Theisen-Eaton and her husband Ashton Eaton.
Theisen-Eaton took over the upstairs of the couple's Eugene, Ore., home, carefully laying out folded piles of clothes, for competition, training and down time, then rolled the items to be stuffed, along with food and about a dozen pair of shoes, into several large bags.
Her husband took the downstairs. His various types of shoes needed for the decathlon took up an entire large suitcase alone. The exhausting process was videotaped to give fans a glimpse of what life's like as track and field's super couple.
Theisen-Eaton, who's No. 1-ranked in the world in the heptathlon, and her American husband Ashton, the world record-holder in the decathlon, are a virtual open book to their fans as two of the more active Olympic athletes on social media.
Where once the spotlight found Olympic athletes only every four years, the explosion of social media has given them a year-round platform like never before.
"There's no question, if you look back pre-Internet, or certainly pre-Vancouver (2010 Winter Olympics), you have kind of a broadcast moment where Olympians go compete and if they're fortunate enough to medal or have a success on the field, the broadcasters take interest for a day, or two days, or maybe 72 hours, and that's it," said Todd Denis, executive director of brand communications for the Canadian Olympic Committee. "That's how they get their name out there.
"Whereas the direct-to-the-fan that social media provides, that's new. That's what you're seeing leveraged not just in Canada, but in every country, where the more savvy athletes build up that fan base and talk to the followers of their sport, they can be ambassadors for their sport."
No surprise, professional athletes lead the way as most influential Canadian Olympians, winter or summer, based on Twitter followers. Two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash has a whopping 2.43 million followers, while NHL stars P.K. Subban has 854,000 and Roberto Luongo has 673,000.
Among the list of Rio Olympians, tennis star Eugenie Bouchard has 657,000 followers, and is the subject of several fan Twitter accounts. Women's soccer star Christine Sinclair has almost 85,000 followers.
Even as the COC struggles with relevance during the months between Games, athletes don't have to anymore.
"There's more opportunity than just when they get the medal around their neck, and that I think is primarily due to social media," Denis said. "The athletes . . . can capitalize on the opportunities, they can have a conversation with their fans all year round, year over year over year."
At the recent Olympic track and field trials in Edmonton, athletes' Twitter handles were displayed on their race bibs, right under their name. Ahead of the game, Athletics Canada has listed the handles on the bibs since the 2012 trials.
"The most valuable piece of real estate in track and field is the athlete bib," said Mat Gentes, Athletics Canada's director of corporate services and public relations. "The bib is clearly visible in all pictures, videos and interviews. We think that sharing that space with athletes, and allowing them to promote themselves is important."
Gentes said the Olympic trials is the most-covered domestic track and field event, and the Twitter handles "gives everyone an opportunity to connect with the athletes in a much deeper way."
Athletics Canada recently started displaying the event hashtag on the bibs, which Gentes said has led to a "huge spike" in use of the hashtag, generating more impressions, reach and awareness.
Social media activity isn't limited to Twitter. During the COC's athlete summit earlier this year, the majority of athletes queried said their favourite social media platform was Instagram.
"Big Instagram, try to get as many followers as I can," said swimmer Santo Condorelli, who has about 1,600 followers.
"It sucks in swimming though, because wherever you are in the level of swimming, I compare myself to other top people in different sports, and I'm like 'Ugh. I don't even compare.' It's not even close."
Instagram allows fans to see inside an athlete's life of training and globe-trotting travel.
"We go to some interesting places, so I'll post pictures of things like our bus ride to a field in India," said Mark Pearson, a veteran on Canada's field hockey team.
Theisen-Eaton recently posted a detailed, user-friendly video on Instagram of her medicine ball warmup.
Athletes' interests on social media also run the gamut. Pearson is a big Ricky Gervais fan, while Derek Drouin, the reigning world high jump champion, likes National Geographic's Instagram account.
Mark de Jonge, a two-time world champion paddler, is an avid auto racing fan.
"I like learning about the little tweaks that people have made to their engines or cars, it's pretty interesting," said De Jonge, who has an engineering degree.
Crystal Emmanuel, winner of the 100 and 200 metres at the Olympic track and field trials, has a thing for shoes.
"I like posting pictures of working out, doing funny stuff, going out, my shoes. I just take pictures of a lot of shoes," she said, with a laugh. "Jordans. Those are my favourite. I have to be online like: 'When's the new shoe coming out? I need those.' Or 'No, I don't fancy those ones.' I love Jordans."