The perils of opinion in the age of ‘always on’

PRISM’s Asia Pacific PR chief comments on the political spat that bubbled out of Rio’s Olympic swimming pool

Olympic swimmers Sun Yang (left) and Mack Horton (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

The Olympic Games throws up all manner of social media pitfalls for communications gatekeepers. Rio was no different.

While most athletes share their views and more on Twitter and Instagram as part of their daily routine, keeping those athletes on message when representing their country brings challenges for PR/media handlers in an always-on news cycle.

During the Games, where there is heightened public scrutiny of their performance, a stray 140 characters here or an ill-advised selfie there can do considerable harm to an athlete’s brand. Not to mention the doctrines laid down by the national Olympic body.

A nation expects. And a nation expects its champions to make a choice between tweet and compete. At least that’s what the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) demanded prior to Rio.

Following a damning review of Australia’s performance in London which identified Twitter as one element of a toxic internal culture pervading the Olympic swimming team, the AOC warned of the kind of social media faux pas that tarnished the team in 2012. In Rio, the tweets were more sparing.

The inextricable link between traditional and social media and how what athletes say or do in print or on camera instantly finds its way to hashtagdom is a challenge for the communications chief or the chef de mission – and athletes.

Around the Games - Olympics: Day 9(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

One case in point was the Rio 400 metre freestyle gold medallist Mack Horton. The lanky Australian initially made his feelings known on doping in an IOC press conference before the race.

The object of his ire was arch rival Sun Yang.

Against a backdrop of systematic doping among Russian athletes prior to the Games of the XXXI Olympiad, Horton chose to air his views on a Chinese opponent who had served a three-month suspension in 2014 when traces of the stimulant trimetazidine were found in his bloodstream.

Following his narrow defeat of Sun in the final, Horton reiterated his ‘drug cheat’ claims during a poolside interview. His justification was that he preferred to compete against clean athletes rather than those tainted by doping violations.

In Horton’s defence, he corrected the interviewer when the issue of doping and rivalry with Sun was posed. “I don’t know if it’s a rivalry between me and him [Sun Yang], just me and athletes who have tested positive,” he said.

While Horton contained his views to the TV cameras, his comments ignited a bushfire on social channels in China.

When Sun broke down in tears during his post-race interview with Chinese television, the backlash moved swiftly from traditional social soapboxes to the Chinese favourites Weibo and Wechat.

Sun Yang Visits His Old Sport School In Hangzhou(Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Horton went from obscurity to gold medallist to an object of hatred and rabid nationalism in the space of a matter of hours.

Horton’s personal Facebook page was deluged with vitriol. Offensive comments on his Instagram account ran to hundreds of thousands. Many of the posters were Chinese students from western universities. His Wikipedia page was also maliciously invaded. Rest assured libel lawyers would be keenly interested if they had appeared in print.

Before we knew it, the spat had evolved from sport to foreign affairs, inflamed by Australia’s stance on the disputed islands in the South China Sea. Never let anyone tell you that sport and politics are not entwined.

The AOC issued a statement on Horton’s behalf. “Mack is entitled to express a point of view,” it read. “Under the team values ASPIRE the E stands for express yourself, that is his right. He has spoken out in support of clean athletes. This is something he feels strongly about and good luck to him.”

Meanwhile, Chinese state news agency Xinhua gave voice to Chinese swim team manager Xu Qi. “We have been noticing what has been said in the past two days by Horton, who launched a malicious personal attack [on Chinese swimmers],” Xu said.

“We think his inappropriate words greatly hurt the feelings between Chinese and Australian swimmers. It is proof of a lack of good manners and upbringing. We strongly demand an apology from this swimmer.” None was forthcoming.

The interesting aspect of the furore over Horton’s anti-doping standpoint, was that it was not triggered by a throwaway remark on his social channels unlike some of the more notorious celebrity Twitter spats of recent times. Far from it. It had its roots in traditional media.

The Horton-Sun scenario is symptomatic of this modern age of media convergence. Athletes should assume that what they utter in a TV or print interview will be seized upon in social media if their views run contrary to popular opinion in some quarters.

An even if Horton’s intention was not to single out Sun, that is how it was interpreted by the vast millions who inhabit the social space in China – as well as a slight on a proud nation.

One man’s TV sound bite, albeit a beneficent moral stance on doping, can be a red rag to a keyboard warrior.

Cameron Kelleher
PR Asia Pacific

October 11, 2017