Making Science

The top Olympians on TikTok

Gabby Fernie

The growth of TikTok has been explosive. A social media app that allows users to post short lip-synced, music, talent, or comedy videos, the platform has been downloaded over 2.6bn times worldwide (source: Sensor Tower) and has become a firm favourite with digital natives Gen Z.

Rather than the polished, filtered posts on Instagram, TikTok users celebrate anything that is silly, funny and overall, authentic.

It’s come as somewhat of a surprise, however, that over recent weeks the platform has been flooded by content from Gen Z Olympians. Previously banned from using social media during the games, this year the athletes have been allowed to connect with fans online. 

From clips of the Olympic village, Q+A’s and “A Day in the Life Of’ vlogs, the athletes are not only providing us with behind-the-scenes footage for the very first time but are reminding us that they are 'normal' teenagers too, with emotions and hormones flying around as they compete to be the best in the world at their individual sport. 

Cardboard beds are jumped on, signs are taped over balconies to flirt with rival teams, ping pong tournaments are held and practical jokes are played. While these young adults seem almost superhuman through the lens of big TV networks, the platform has given them a chance to show their personality to the world, and as one user remarked, “seem like normal people”.

Olympians have been seen on Instagram for a long time, usually doing sponsored posts. Diver Tom Daley is currently Team GB’s biggest influencer, with 2m Instagram followers and earning up to £6,845 per sponsored post (source: Casino Scores). Tennis player Andy Murray is a close second, also with 2m followers and earning up to £5,887.50 per sponsored post.

But in true TikTok style, the most popular Olympians on the platform aren’t even famous household names.

Sam Fricker, a 19-year-old Australian diver has over a million followers. Posting on the platform up to 10 times a day he has documented his time in Tokyo with videos of him slow-motion diving into the ocean at sunset, putting a mattress topper on his cardboard bed to make it softer, taking viewers into the Olympic canteen where there is “anything you could possibly want” to eat, and admitting that his favourite way to celebrate after a competition is “with a bag of lollies”.

Last week, swimmer Adam Peaty made TikTok users go wild as he appeared miming along to a rap song before whipping out an Olympic gold medal. The video has amassed over 570,000 likes, with comments from users including "We're living in a time where Olympic athletes casually make TikToks after winning a gold medal."

Ilona Maher, a 24-year-old US Rugby Sevens player has taken the platform by storm in her search to find a "tall foreign demigod lookin” athlete. Maher’s videos are a wry, witty, and engaging peek at the action in Tokyo, amassing millions of views. Clips of her modeling Ralph Lauren's Olympic uniforms have gone viral, in particular, a colourful USA bucket hat.

When asked by a user why Olympians don't go up and talk to each other in person (increasingly using the platform to reach out to those that they like the look of) Maher replied “It’s not that easy to go up to a pack of six, seven Romanian volleyball players and shoot my shot. I’m working on it, but I don’t know if that’s in the cards for me.”

Maher admitted that when she's not on the rugby field she is spending six hours a day on the app, creating content for fans.

Filipino skateboarder Margie Didal’s dance celebration video with 13-year-old Brazilian skateboarder Rayssa Leal after winning the silver gained millions of views. Her tom-boy image, combined with jokey dance videos has gained her a giant 1.5m followers on the platform. She regularly communicates with fans, recently commenting that if a clip of her skateboarding at the Olympics hit one million views before midnight she would "do a live and celebrate with you guys." 

The Olympics official TikTok account has posted a range of content. Some are clips of the athletes competing at the games, whilst others are show off their incredible strength and skill in more unusual ways. Climbers hoover their floors whilst suspended from the ceiling, surfers eat cereal whilst standing on a makeshift balance board and a group of divers perform handstands on a treadmill. In contrast to his stylysed posts on Instagram, Tom Daley is spotted knitting in the stands whilst watching his fellow teammates. 

Caught in the exact moment of living out their dreams, this new group of content creators are not only mesmerising but arguably one of the best things to have hit the platform this year.