Sarah O'Dwyer: Online abuse in sport needs tackling

A new study published by World Athletics, has highlighted that 60% of all detected online abuse during this year’s world championships was sexual or racial in nature.
Sarah O'Dwyer: Online abuse in sport needs tackling

A new study published by World Athletics, has highlighted that 60% of all detected online abuse during this year’s world championships was sexual or racial in nature. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

ATHLETES, officials, presenters and pundits who cover sport, who happen to be female, are often unfairly targeted online with abuse in comparison to their male counterparts.

Anecdotally, we have all seen the commentary online about different women in different areas of sport.

Take former Wexford camogie player and now TV pundit Ursula Jacob, for example. Speaking earlier this year on South East Radio she said: “I’m well aware that being on a public platform you are always open to debate and discussion and not everyone will always like you. I’ve also no problem with anyone disagreeing with any comments I make while working with RTÉ or on the Sunday Game, that’s part & parcel of the job.

“What I do have a problem with is an anonymous person/people setting up a page trying to create headlines out of nothing, facilitating nasty personal attacks & once again targeting another female pundit or presenter. 

"Have we seriously not just moved on with the times at all or are we still stuck in the past?”

Ursula Jacob isn’t alone in the trolling she has received online. Many other women across other disciplines have experienced similar.

In 2020, a BBC Sport survey uncovered almost a third of elite British sportswomen had suffered social media trolling.

Now, a new study published by World Athletics, has highlighted that 60% of all detected online abuse during this year’s world championships was sexual or racial in nature.

But it found that sexualised and sexist abuse — overwhelmingly targeted at female athletes — made up over 40% of all detected posts in the study which was conducted during the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 to identify and address abusive comments sent to athletes via social media.

It is the second study of its kind in athletics, following the Online Abuse Study that World Athletics conducted during the Tokyo Olympic Games.

That study revealed disturbing levels of athlete abuse. It also highlighted the greater levels of abuse female athletes received in comparison to their male counterparts, finding that female athletes were the target of 87% of all abuse.

The results of these two studies are guiding the strategies World Athletics is employing to address the issue of online abuse.

For the latest study, the accounts of 461 competitors across Twitter and Instagram were monitored for a period starting on July 10 and ending on August 1, 2022. World Athletics selected the timeframe to detect any abuse leading in and out of the World Athletics Championships Oregon22, as well as during the event itself.

427,764 posts and comments on Twitter and Instagram were captured for analysis.

The study revealed:

  • 59 targeted discriminatory posts were identified coming from 57 unique authors, with 27 of the 461 tracked athletes receiving targeted abuse.
  • Sexualised and sexist abuse — overwhelmingly targeted at female athletes — made up over 40% of all detected posts.
  • Twitter was the preferred channel for abusers, accounting for almost 60% of detected abuse.
  • Abuse tended to be driven by events outside of competition — athletes were targeted over controversies associated with athletics, but not necessarily driven by results in the stadium.

“The results of this study are disturbing but it’s important that we know where and how our athletes are being abused on social media so we can take steps to protect them and prevent future occurrences,” World Athletics President Sebastian Coe said.

“There is no place for abusive behaviour in our sport and we need to send a clear message to those who think athletes are fair game for this mistreatment. We won’t hesitate to sanction individuals who abuse our athletes where we can identify them.

“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.” 

Sexual and racist abuse made up 60% of all detected online abuse.

When abuse types were broken down by gender, half of all abuse targeting female athletes was of a sexualised nature. Abuse targeting male athletes tended to include general slurs, with a significant proportion — 29% — of racist abuse detected.

59% of abusive posts were deemed to warrant intervention from the social platforms, with 5% considered so egregious that World Athletics is considering further sanctions against these individuals, including sending evidence and reports to national law enforcement agencies.

In a week where history was made when all three of the on-field officials for Thursday night’s FIFA Men’s World Cup group game between Germany and Costa Rica were female, it’s clear more needs to be done to safeguard women in sport online.

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