Among the many geopolitical complexities attached to this year’s Beijing Winter Olympics were widespread cybersecurity concerns. Social media became a specific focal point of those fears, as many popular global platforms are typically restricted in China. And yet, with the games now well underway, Olympians are appearing all over social media.
Those comfortable with sharing on social media from Beijing have increasingly turned to Chinese-owned TikTok, in particular, while others rely heavily on their teams stateside to post and manage their profiles until they return. Many are doing both.
Heeding warnings from Olympic committees across the globe about cybersecurity risks, athletes are using burner phones and private networks as they turn to TikTok during their time in the Olympic bubble, a platform that is “already Chinese regulated,” so the government “has the information they need from the platform,” to allow for unfettered access, Basia Wojcik, VP of sports at marketing advisory firm TMA, explained.
TikTok has rapidly emerged as the preferred platform for athletes to share real-time content. American snowboarders Tessa Maud and Maddie Mastro have been sharing their Olympic Village experience on the platform, as has a long-time face of Team USA, Shaun White, among countless others.
The pivot to TikTok seems to be a compromise after many countries cautioned athletes on using social media while in China. The USOPC, for example, issued a technology advisory, which was viewed by Sportico, encouraging the use of rental or disposable computers and burner cell phones and forewarning athletes about potential privacy and security threats.
“We did share [a] tech advisory out to all NGBs, and held athlete town halls across all Games subjects including tech needs, but ultimately every sport/discipline/athlete made their own choices as it relates to taking personal phone or temporary rentals,” a spokesperson for the USOPC said over email.
The United States was hardly alone in taking precautions. Germany, Britain, Canada and the Netherlands’ Olympic committees issued warnings to athletes because of fears of espionage.
While a solution in the short term, TikTok may not necessarily be an Olympian’s best option in the long run given the behind-the-scenes privacy threats still posed. It’s also a platform less familiar to many potential brand partners or sponsors, key supporters of many Olympic athletes.
“On the business side, TikTok is still emerging from a marketing and brand perspective,” Wojcik said. “We saw some stuff from Tokyo on there, but I think the other platforms [like Instagram and Twitter] are still the front runners.”
Regular sharing on Instagram and Twitter has continued, much of it aided by athlete representatives back home.
The amount of content coming out of these Games is a bit of a surprise to many considering how access to social media and technology in Beijing was one of the biggest question marks going in.
“We had no idea what China would look like in terms of what you’d have access to,” Mary Anthony, director of women & Olympics at Wasserman, said in a phone interview. “We were told things could get deleted, be prepared for anything and everything.”
Anthony helps manage social media for U.S. women’s hockey team veteran Hilary Knight, a three-time Olympian competing in her fourth Games. Prior to her departure for Beijing, Knight told Sportico she would be leaning on Wasserman “significantly” to post on social media for her during the games.
Knight has posted some content herself from China from a burner phone, mainly sharing behind-the-scenes snaps from the Olympic village on Instagram and TikTok, while Wasserman has handled much of her scheduled content including game-day graphics and brand posts.
Such arrangements are common, several athlete representatives said, because social media matters so much in modern endorsement deals. While athletes have freely shared real-time footage from the village and the games, sponsored posts for brand partners have largely been handed off to proxies.
Wasserman did make contingency plans in case access to the internet or to certain sites was limited. “You’re always worried about internet,” Knight said. “Will the connection be good? Will it be spotty because so many people are on it?”
Anthony said they haven’t run into any issues thus far, and the USOPC echoed that access has been relatively consistent, though security concerns remain. “It’s just a matter of who can see it on the back end, and if they care about what you’re posting,” said Wojcik.
That worry is what led some, like U.S. men’s hockey Olympian Noah Cates, who plays for the University of Minnesota-Duluth, to take a more conservative approach. Cates told Sportico he planned to stay off his phone and laptop while in China, “unless it’s a necessity or for school,” or to communicate with close family and friends.
“Obviously when I get back, I’ll want to show people what it was like and how cool of an experience it was,” Cates said in a phone interview. But he won’t be doing any of that until he’s on U.S. soil again, an “intentional” decision made with his family.