As the Olympics wrap up, we explore the evolution of Olympic engagement with a piece from Wunderman Thompson.
Olympic coverage and participation is evolving to be more inclusive, political, and socially responsive: a reflection of the event's global audience and the perspective of its competitors.
Skateboarding’s introduction to the games indicates a growing value in not only the sport itself, but the street culture from which it was born and continues to develop. The young athletes from around the world who competed are establishing guidelines, goals, and rules for the sport on an internationally acknowledged level. Gen Z athletes notably took home gold (Japan's Momiji Nishiya, age 13), silver (Brazil's Rayssa Leal, age 13) and bronze (Japan's Funa Nakayama, age 16) in the skateboarding events. It "could very well be the youngest Olympic podium ever," the official Olympics news outlet says.
With a new sport came new gear: skateboarding competitors have received audience attention for their street fashion-inspired uniforms. Nike was one popular sponsor for the competitors, and similar garb is available for purchase by the public.
The Twitch app gives audiences the unique ability to review Olympic highlights, athlete interviews, gaming and competitions, and comment on live streams during the games. The app’s partnership with NBC highlights increased consumer engagement with the games through media and streaming apps.
The Olympic song list was made up of video game theme songs and blips, reflecting Japan’s deep ties to the gaming industry. The playlist features tunes include the Sonic the Hedgehog theme, Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy III and Monster Hunter to name a few.
Shifting gender norms
New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard is the first openly transgender athlete to compete in the Olympics, indicative of a growing understanding of transitioning athletic competitors and athletic support for the transgender community.
The popular New York-based brand Telfar designed the Liberian team’s uniforms. Telfar Clemens, the Liberian-American designer, created gowns, unitards, tank tops, track suits and more for the athletes. The gender neutral collection reflects the Liberian flag, includes a traditional African lappa, and was intentionally made with economic and social responsibly: an ode to the growing ethical contentiousness in the fashion and clothing industries.
To protest regulation bikini bottoms, the Norwegian women’s beach handball team wore shorts despite a fine for “improper clothing.” The team and the Norwegian Handball Federation President argue that the regulation bikini bottoms and cropped tops are not suitable for competing on sand, and risked disqualification to make their statement heard.
The German gymnastics team wore unitards during their events in a statement against the sexualization of the sport and its traditional uniforms. Their choice in uniform defiance also emphasized the importance of both physical and mental comfort while competing.
The mental game
Simone Biles’s decision to withdraw from select events was one of many instances during events where mental health conversations took a front row seat. After an intense year of training atop a delayed Olympic series, many athletes have expressed the importance of emotional support amidst intense competitive pressure and outside emotional, social, and health factors.
Networks including NBC have shifted their tone and coverage to reflect a growing focus on competitors and their mental health. NBC Olympic host Mike Tirico weighed in on how audiences perceive athletes after Biles withdrew from events, speculating that “sometimes what we know [athletes] for and what we admire them for is not the most important thing.” Michael Phelps, a guest commentator at the games, echoed these sentiments with comments about his own struggles with mental health.
Making room for politics
In a new era of Olympic activism, multiple soccer teams knelt, linked arms, or gestured at the start of the games to protest racism and racial inequality at the games and globally. U.S. women’s soccer team captain Megan Rapinoe told AP News that the protests are “an opportunity for us to continue to use our voices and use our platforms to talk about the things that affect all of us intimately in different ways.”
US Olympic fencer Race Imboden wore a black X on his hand as a demonstration of solidarity against Olympic Rule 50, which states athletes cannot protest or demonstrate at the Olympic games, and in “support of athletes of color, Ending Gun violence, and all the athletes who wish to use their voice on the platform they've earned," Imboden told CNN.
In swimming, swim caps made for thicker, more voluminous hair—often for those with Afros, dreadlocks or weaves—were not allowed, which resulted in an outcry for racial inclusivity. Oftentimes, athletes with thicker hair find that regulation swim caps don’t fit properly, hence a call for a more viable and comfortable option.
One German cycling official was sent home after making a racial slur on an Olympic telecast, just one day after Greek broadcaster ERT cut ties with one of their commentators for inappropriate racial comments.
In related Olympic news, one athlete from Belarus was granted asylum by Poland just before leaving Tokyo. Kristina Timanovskaya, a sprinter, sought help when the Belarus Olympic Committee tried to force her home from the games.
The influence of cultural pressures made separating politics from the games almost impossible.
Reflective of a societal charge for change, communication and understanding, the 2020 Olympics were grounds for more than global competition. Competitors, coaches and supporters took advantage of the international platform to protest, encourage, and support one another in a socially collaborative series of events.