Behind the Hype: Olympic Athletes Tell Their Own Stories Through Social Media (Featuring McKayla Maroney)

by Nate St. Pierre on August 13, 2012

We’ve seen the drama and spectacle of the Olympics play out in front of us for many, many decades, but even as the technological mediums utilized to bring us these stories have changed, they have always been presented to us by a third party of some kind: from newspaper reporters, to radio announcers, to TV commentators, to bloggers, and so on. Ever changing, but ever the same.

The 2012 Summer Olympics in London marked the first time in history that the evolution of technology and official sentiment intersected to give us an added dimension to the stories of the Games. Athletes were allowed to use social media, and suddenly we began to see the action unfold from a totally different perspective. Never before have we been able to peek behind the curtain of the “official story” to get a glimpse of the real person, acting in real time, engaging with fellow competitors (and sometimes even with us) on the biggest stage in the world.

How cool was it to see Michael Phelps and Gabby Douglas going back and forth over Twitter after she won the individual all-around gold in Women’s Gymnastics?

And how can you not love the entire U.S. Swim team doing their own fun version of Call Me Maybe?

Think about this: some of the biggest social media platforms in the world weren’t even invented four years ago, the last time these athletes competed. Not only that, but many Olympians are only 16 years old, part of the first generation born into a completely and constantly connected world. But social media platforms – and Olympic athletes – grow up fast, and ready or not, they take the stage together in front of us all.

One of the biggest risks for an Olympic athlete has always been the fact that most of them are relatively unknown for 99% of their lives, and then they are thrust into the international spotlight, under the most intense scrutiny, for their one single week of competition. What they do during that week, especially during the few short minutes or even seconds of their respective events, can burn an image into the world’s collective memory, and define them for life.

Imagine how that feels when they mess up.

Quick, tell me the story behind this picture:

We all know it, right? McKayla Maroney, U.S. Women’s Gymnastics, the best vaulter in the world, period. No question. No one else is even close. Two vaults to do in the individual competition, and she’s cruising to the gold after the first one. All she has to do is land on her feet for the second. And she falls.

She wins the silver, but she is stunned. We see her barely listen to her coach afterwards. We see her sit on the bench and barely acknowledge the other two medalists who come over for a hug. And finally, on the medal stand, we see her face, twisted into disappointment, captured forever, for all the world to see. And this becomes her story.

That picture rocketed around the internet, and haters spent more effort criticizing her in 24 hours than they spent improving their own lives in 24 months. Mary Elizabeth Williams, writing for Salon.com, puts it this way:

That face, that tough, steely look, has been a wide-open opportunity for would-be comics to poke fun at Maroney’s “Oh, hell no” countenance, and to riff on her “mean girl” persona. She’s had entire galleries devoted to her “bitch face,” which also serves as her unofficial nickname. She’s been a “fool” and a “brat” and a “baby,” a “snobby,” “pissy” “diva.”

By the next morning, a new blog called “mckayla is not impressed” had gone viral, consisting only of Photoshopped pictures of McKayla remaining unimpressed at obviously impressive things.

The pictures were funny, yes. But you know how much they had to hurt. When I was seeing it all happen, I didn’t think she was being a poor sport. I thought she was furious with herself, and was trying not to let it consume her. I’ve been there – I’ve blown the game for myself and for the team. I’ve failed at the one thing I was supposed to be the best at. The only person I ever get horribly angry at is myself, and that’s what I thought was happening with her. To borrow one more quote from Ms. Williams:

That’s the face I saw Sunday – the face of a fierce, tough girl whose fiercest, toughest competitor is herself. A girl who lost to herself and was tremendously disappointed. A girl who was mad, not at her medal or her competitors, but with McKayla Maroney. She’s a 16-year-old who got up from the kind of shocking, public, humiliating disappointment that few of us can even imagine, and, with every camera in the world trained on her face, couldn’t plaster on a fake smile. That doesn’t make her a sore loser. It makes her real and human.

If these were any past Olympics, the story could well have ended there – with half of us saying that she was a poor sport, and half saying she was justifiably upset with herself in those moments, and blocking everything else out. People would argue about it for a while, and then it would fade away. But the indelibly stamped story would always be “McKayla Blew It, And The World Jeered.” Very few would talk about how she helped propel the U.S. to a team gold, or the inspiration she was to female gymnasts everywhere, performing better even than the men, or the fun she had with her teammates in London, or the love she had for her family through all this.

Is that fair? Probably not. Unfortunately, being unfairly remembered is the risk all Olympians run.

But today, thanks to social media, we can do a little better. We can be a little more fair to these athletes. We can not idolize them, not worship them, and not hold them to a higher standard than we would hold ourselves if we were in their position. We can make our judgments based on what they’re actually saying and doing, rather than by the story someone told us.

Does this help inform the way you feel about McKayla? Check out what she tweeted after she had time to calm down a bit:

These Olympians aren’t icons – they are (very young) people just like us, who happen to have a lot of talent and also work incredibly hard to become the very best in the world. To make an understatement, it’s really, really tough.

I decided to take a look at many of the older posts from McKayla’s personal social media accounts. Everyone who has an account paints a picture of themselves, whether intentionally or not. Unless you are very deliberate and very disciplined, you can’t hide from the truth online. You shape it with who you consistently are, every single day. Usually, what you see is what you get.

I went looking for the “real” McKayla, and here’s what I found – a ton of tweets and pics about:

  • Her little brother and little sister
  • Kyla, her Olympic teammate, training together since they were kids
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Gymnastics
  • Meeting and supporting other athletes
  • Having fun

Here’s a quick glimpse in words, pictures, and video:

(Before the vault)


(teaching Jenna Bush how to “Dougie”)

Okay, so before all this happened she seems to be a 16-year-old girl who’s working hard and having fun, right?

(After the vault)


After all this happened she seems . . . hmm, a lot like a 16-year-old girl working hard and having fun, right? And come on – that picture of her and her teammates making “the McKayla face” because the pool is closed, and posting that to her accounts? She’s taking the criticism, laughing along with the world, and showing that she not only has class, but also a good sense of humor.

McKayla never changed her personality. But, because of the freedom given to her by social media, she was able to showcase it, and show the world that her story is much larger than one disappointing moment frozen in time. This is a living, laughing, loving girl who deserves all the enjoyment she’s having on her trip to London.

So instead of remembering her ‘not impressed’ face, maybe we can remember a happier one instead:

And the next time we’re tempted to encapsulate and judge a public figure based on one flashbulb-popping moment, hopefully we’ll take the time to get to know them a little better.

Because now we can.

  • Bravo. I love this piece. Especially because I completely agree with you about how bully this world can be. Even as adults we can often miss the beauty of appreciating positive moments because we’re too busy being judgmental and critical of others. And as we’re making fun of McKayla’s face, Gabby’s hair, or Lolo’s religion, the truth is that we’re really judging ourselves in the process. Perhaps this is what we were conditioned to do because others have done this to us. Doesn’t make it right, but it’s the reality of the world we live in.

    I was inspired to write a post about this very theme and so I’m glad you brought this topic to light. I’ll expand my thoughts further on a new post. But I wanted to tell you, thank you. Thank you for reminding us to be better than this. Thank you for reminding us that it is okay–and, actually better–to be human with feelings and flaws.

  • Darcey

    Yes, yes, thank you–you said everything I was thinking but didn’t say because I lack any “following”…I made one response about feeling bad for her on a friend’s post, only to read two subsequent posts lambasting her for being a “spoiled brat”…did these posters take even a second to think about how much hard work and dedication it took to reach her level of accomplishment before labeling her “spoiled”? Guess I shouldn’t have been stunned at this rush to judgement, but I was literally in tears at the disrespect showed to this (very young) human being, apparently on the basis of a few moments TV coverage. I long debated responding to these disses, but finally decided it was inappropriate to get into an online argument with people I didn’t know on an acquaintance’s page. I am so impressed with Ms. Maroney’s remarkable resilience, and so gratified to learn of it!

  • LB

    I don’t think people should judge her based on “the face” she made after her disappointing vault (disappointing to herself, not to me).

    I guess the part of this post I am not understanding is why she still isn’t being idolized.  Why is she not worshiped.  She made the Olympic team and did amazing.  I think she should be idolized and commended.  She won silver, and there are a lot of athletes that don’t make the Olympics or even medal.  So what she made a face, big deal.  She wasn’t interviewing for a job and I am sure she learned her lesson to be more professional next time.  Besides like you said, she 16 and she is allowed to make faces and mistakes, but we all need to remember she went to the Olympics and so few can say that they did just that.

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