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, 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.

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