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Female Track & Field Athletes the Target of Online Abuse During World Championships

An initiative by World Athletics monitors slurs and sexual harassment on social media during competition.

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During the 2022 World Championships, female athletes received 60 percent of all online abuse via Twitter and Instagram, according to a report released in November by World Athletics, the international governing body of track and field.

It was the second time World Athletics monitored social media during two weeks of high-profile competition, in an effort to better understand which athletes are receiving abuse, such as sexual harassment or racial slurs, and in what form. The first study was conducted during the 2021 Olympics, which analyzed 240,707 tweets targeting 161 athletes and found that women were the recipients of 87 percent of the abuse. The 2022 analysis included 427,764 posts and comments on Twitter and Instagram that targeted 461 athletes.

In Tokyo, 25 percent of abusive messages were related to unfounded doping accusations, 10 percent were transphobic (comments that conveyed aversion, hatred, violence, or anger toward people who they perceived did not conform to gender expectations) , and 1 percent were homophobic (comments that were prejudice against athletes they perceived were gay).American athletes received 89 percent of racist comments during the Games, even though they only represented 23 percent of the participants in the study.

During the World Championships, half of all the flagged comments directed at female athletes were sexualized in nature. Twenty-nine percent of racist abuse was directed at male athletes during Oregon22.

How the Study Was Conducted

The study used text analysis and AI-powered language processing to identify nine categories of abuse: ableism, sexualization, racism, slurs, sectarianism, sexism, war crimes, terrorism, and transphobia. Racism was depicted with use of the N-word and with monkey emojis, for example—59 targeted discriminatory posts came from 57 unique authors, with 27 athletes receiving targeted abuse.

Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, called the results of the study “disturbing.”

“We won’t hesitate to sanction individuals who abuse our athletes where we can identify them,” he said, in a written statement. “We have a duty to safeguard our athletes to the best of our ability and that is why we have developed robust safeguarding policies to set the standards we want to see in our sport.”

Officials said that 59 percent of abusive posts during the World Championships warranted intervention from social platforms and 5 percent were “so egregious that World Athletics is considering further sanctions against these individuals, including sending evidence and reports to national law enforcement agencies.”

Although the study in July focused on Twitter and Instagram exclusively (60 percent of the abuse was found on Twitter), the report went on to point out that some was also discovered in the comments of media outlets covering the event.

The studies are part of World Athletics’ Safeguarding Policy, launched in 2021, which is an initiative to make track and field “free from harassment and abuse” by encouraging national federations to adopt rules and regulations that help prevent abuse, harassment, and exploitation of athletes.

“With the social media platforms currently in a state of flux and the introduction of new regulatory initiatives to deal with the poison of online abuse,” said Jonathan Hirshler, CEO of Signify Group, the company that conducted the analysis,” it has never been more important to have a clear understanding of what athletes are facing online, the tactics being used to target abuse and the performance of platforms in dealing with this content.”

More to Come

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