Most professional swimmers, track athletes, and gymnasts live in relative anonymity, training and competing within the focus of their respective sport. However, these athletes get the chance every four years to become the center of the world’s attention. This summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Jainero was no different; from August 5th to the 21st the world’s attention was tuned to the amazing athletic feats happening in Brazil.
Four of the biggest stars were Michael Phelps and Simone Biles of the United States, Usain Bolt of Jamaica, and Mo Farah of Great Britain. I studied the relative popularity of each athlete on a global scale during August 2016, using Google Trends to analyze the google searches for each athlete throughout the games.
Here is a comparison of the number of global Google searches for the four biggest stars of the Rio Olympics last August:
Usain Bolt (shown in blue) lived up to his title as “the Fastest Man on Earth”at the Rio games, winning his third consecutive gold medals in the 100 meters, 200 meters, and 4×100 meter relay respectively. His google popularity spiked on the 15th after he won the 100m finals, with relatively smaller yet significant spikes after the 200 meter final on the 18th and relay final on the 19th.
American Swimmer Michael Phelps (red) is the most decorated Olympian of all time, having won a total of 28 medals over five games. Competing in Sydney at age 15 as youngest U.S. Olympic swimmer ever, he would go on to dominate the sport over the next 16 years. His worldwide popularity was the highest of any of the Olympians studied, both in terms of peak popularity and average over the course of the games. The major spikes in his popularity on the 8th, 10th, 12th, and 14th correspond exactly with the 12 hours after he won each of his medals:
- August 7th- 4×100 Freestyle Relay Final (Gold)
- August 9th – 4×200 Freestyle Relay Final (Gold) & 200m Butterfly Final (Gold)
- August 11th – 200m Individual Medley Final (Gold)
- August 12th- 100m Butterfly Final (Silver)
- August 13th – 4×100 Medley Relay Final (Gold)
Diminuitive U.S. gymnast Simone Biles (yellow) became one of America’s biggest stars when she won four gold medals and one bronze, breaking the American record for most gold medals during a single games. Her popularity worldwide was relatively modest compared to mega-stars Phelps and Bolt yet still significant, peaking on August 12th a day after winning the all-around title.
Sir Mohammed Farah, better known as Mo, is the greatest British distance runner of all time and European record holder for every distance above 15oom . After winning double gold in the 5000m and 10,000m at the London games he returned in Rio defend both titles, becoming only the second runner to accomplish the feat. His worldwide popularity was the lowest of the four stars studied, only showing modest spikes on the days of his two main races (August 13th and 20th). However, if we focus in on the U.K. specifically we can see that Farah’s popularity rivals that of Bolt’s on his two race days
Amazing feats of athleticism win Olympians fame and notoriety, but their exploits away from the pool or track can sometimes garner even more press. Take for instance U.S, swimmer Ryan Lochte, who rose to fame winning five medals in London yet floundered slightly in Rio. Lochte failed to win any individual medals, yet he became the talk of the games when he became embroiled in an incident after a post-competition party.
If we compare the searches involving top American male swimmers Phelps and Lochte we can see two distinct trends. Phelps’ popularity spikes between August 7th and August 13th when he was competing in the pool, while Lochte’s is relatively modest during this time. However, Lochte’s popularity begins to rise on August 17th and peak between August 18th and 19th.
This attention can be tied to the timeline of events regarding Lochte’s drunken party escapades and subsequent fallout with the Brazilian government. On August 14th Lochte claimed to have been robbed at gunpoint at a party, though it was revealed later that he had lied about the encounter. On August 17th a Brazilian judge attempted to seize the passports of Lochte and two teammates to prevent them from leaving the country.
On the 18th a security video was released showing that Lochte and his teammates had in fact been apprehended by a security guard after drunkenly trashing a gas station. Lochte’s lie was exposed, and he faced serious repercussions from the IOC, the Brazilian government, and the general media for fabricating the attack.
In all, we can see that there are two ways for athletes to earn global interest during the Olympic Games: by impressing the world with incredible feats and win medals, or do something stupid enough to become the day’s top headline.