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Tokyo 2020 Olympics

'Go die': Cyberbullying adds to Olympic athletes' mental hurdles

From Japan to Malaysia to New Zealand, sports stars and officials cry foul

A Japanese Olympian captures footage of himself during the opening ceremony. Many athletes use social media to engage with fans, but this has its pitfalls.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Athletes from 205 countries and territories are competing in the Tokyo Olympics, carrying the weight of their compatriots' expectations. Adding to the pressure is widespread cyberbullying, prompting competitors, officials and even Singapore's president to speak out.

"We don't condone cyberbullying in any way," the New Zealand Olympic Committee said recently, according to news agency AFP. The statement was a response to online attacks on New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, who made history as the first transgender woman to compete in the Olympics.

Hubbard is far from alone in being targeted. With spectators banned from the Games due to COVID-19, the internet is one of few ways athletes can interact with fans. But this has its pitfalls.

Japanese gymnast Mai Murakami, who won a bronze medal in the women's floor exercise, was in tears when she told reporters that she had received negative comments on social media. "I know there are people who support me," she said. "But I can't help seeing those negative comments."

Japanese table tennis player Jun Mizutani, who won gold in the mixed doubles with Mima Ito, revealed on Twitter that he was receiving abusive direct messages from both overseas and domestic users. A short video he uploaded on Saturday showed an anonymous Twitter user sent multiple messages such as "Go die" and "You are a piece of s---."

The issue has drawn attention elsewhere in Asia, too. Lee Chong Wei, Malaysia's chef de mission for the Tokyo Games, rushed to the defense of badminton mixed doubles players Chan Peng Soon and Goh Liu Ying after they failed to qualify for the knockout stage.

The torrent of criticism they suffered was "unforgivable," Lee said, according to the New Straits Times.

"I am dismayed by the number of online comments abusing our badminton players. As a former teammate, I feel so much for them," he wrote on Instagram. "No athlete competes to lose. There are bound to be winners and losers. ... Don't mock them and desert them when they lose."

The New Zealand Olympic Committee felt compelled to speak out against cyberbullying after online attacks against Laurel Hubbard, the first transgender woman to compete in the Olympics.   © Reuters

In Singapore, President Halimah Yacob called on the city-state's citizens to support athletes. Swimmer Joseph Schooling failed to qualify for the semifinals after winning gold at Rio 2016 -- and then was subjected to harsh criticism.

"That was the start of negative, hurtful comments against him," the president said. "We forgot that he had helped us to win an Olympic gold medal and brought glory to our own sports history."

In South Korea, 20-year-old women's archery gold medalist An San reposted abusive messages directed to her Instagram stories. She became a target after she cut her hair short -- a look labeled "feminist" by some social media users.

"We've heard a few athletes have gone off social media ... The negative comments, even if they are the fewest comments, can be really hurtful to athletes," said Kirsty Coventry, chair of the International Olympic Committee Athletes' Commission.

Athletes' mental well-being has been in the spotlight at these Games. In June, just weeks ahead of the opening, Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka spoke about depression. And last week, star U.S. gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from major events to focus on her mental health.

Yet, this is also an age when athletes rely on social media to connect with followers and build their personal brands -- meaning there are no easy answers.

Archery gold medalist An San of South Korea was targeted with misogynistic comments over her short haircut.   © Reuters

Hiroaki Yamamoto, a psychiatrist who is also a board member of the Japanese Association of Sports Psychiatry, warned that such comments can have a negative impact on athletes' performance. "But you cannot simply tell athletes to stay away from social media," Yamamoto said. "Social media has become an indispensable tool for athletes to enhance their value."

Many athletes have shared experiences in the Olympic Village on multiple platforms such as Tik Tok and Instagram, offering fans a new window on the Games.

Organizers say they are taking measures to ease the mental strain. They have set up a clinic with services that include psychiatric counseling and a hotline that is available at all hours and in 70 languages. Six free sessions of counseling and support for athletes up to three months after the Games are also available.

The Japan Olympic Committee told reporters on Sunday that it is monitoring and recording online bullying, adding that the police could be brought in depending on the case.

Cyberbullying itself is not new, but Olympic athletes are highlighting the extent of the problem.

Yamamoto, the psychiatrist, said he has observed how athletes tread carefully on social media, being selective about what they post. But he argued there is only so much any individual can do to avoid the bullies, without a bigger change in how social media works.

"This is a very worrisome problem that currently lacks a fundamental solution," Yamamoto said.

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