Patrick Whatman
Jan 3, 2017 · 8 min read

I love the Olympics. As it turns out, so do lots of other people. But just like many of them, I don’t really like rowing, swimming, or archery. I also don’t like the rampant corruption, cheating, and general nefariousness we hear about.

But I do love the spectacle.

So during last year’s Rio Olympics, I helped build a live social media dashboard. The dashboard tracked all the biggest social conversations during the games.

We used Mention’s social media monitoring tools and created more than 100 dedicated alerts. Each of these focused on an athlete, country, or sponsor. We also created one master alert for the Olympics themselves, covering all the official hashtags and different ways of describing the event.

As a result, we collected more than 53,000,000 mentions about the Rio Olympics. Now, we can look back through this vast database to find trends, activity spikes, and noteworthy moments.

For me, the most interesting conversations revolved around the athletes. People love to celebrate their sporting heroes — that’s part of what makes the Olympics so exciting.

Here’s what we found when we looked back at all of that social data, specifically relating to the athletes.

What Social Media Said About the Rio2016 Athletes

Novak Djokovic

The first athlete to really explode on social media at Rio did so for the wrong reason.

The world number one was the favorite to win gold in the men’s tennis. Instead, he was knocked out in the first round by world number 141 (at the time) Juan Martin Del Potro.

Djokovic’s army of fans were predictably distraught.

In the 24 hours that followed (August 7–8), 218,270 people mentioned Djokovic on social media. That was second most among athletes in that period, only slightly less than swimmer Michael Phelps (260,455 mentions).

Diving a little deeper into these numbers, we found that 49.9% (129,961) of Phelps’ mentions came from the United States. Phelps is American, so perhaps that’s no great surprise.

In contrast, only about 7% (15,197) of Djokovic’s mentions came from the United States. A whopping 104,260 mentions of the Serb came from South America, versus only 21,697 for Phelps.

So if we remove the USA from our results, we get 203,073 mentions for Djokovic, and 130,494 for Phelps. Outside of the USA, Novak Djokovic’s first round loss was a bigger story than Michael Phelps’ 23rd gold medal.

Simone Biles

If you didn’t know who Simone Biles was before the Rio olympics, you do now. One of the undeniable breakout stars of the games, her charming smile and dominant athleticism made her enormously popular.

One of the greatest gymnasts of all time, Biles took home four gold medals and a bronze. The four golds equals an equal record, while five total medals ties an American gymnastics record.

Social mentions of Simone Biles, August 5–21.

It would make sense if those spikes corresponded directly to gold medals won by Biles. Well, the second and third ones do, but the first one is after only day two of the Games.

It was then that viewers got excited, after Biles qualified first in every event. First in floor, beam, vault, all-around, and team all-around (as part of team USA). Nearly 75,000 tweets about Biles were sent on August 7–8, as people quickly realized her talent.

Her popularity also far exceeded that of her USA gymnastics teammates:

Share of voice for Biles, Douglas, Hernandez, August 5–21.

Or maybe everyone was just psyched because she got to meet Zac Efron:

Usain Bolt

Bolt has always been a major draw for Olympic viewers. “The world’s fastest man” has been utterly unstoppable, and fans tune in to see whether this will finally be the time he loses.

These games, Bolt had set himself another goal: to become the first person to win the 100m, the 200m, and the 4x100m relay in three consecutive Olympics. Also known as the “triple triple.”

The first half of the 2016 Olympics were quiet for Bolt. He ran his first race — a qualifier — on day 8 (August 13). That gave the likes of Phelps and Biles more than a week to dominate the headlines.

And then on August 14, the 100m final:

Social mentions of Usain Bolt, August 5–21.

Of course, Bolt won. Those nearly 150,000 social media posts came after Bolt became the first person to win the 100m three times in a row.

From that race on, Bolt dominated social media conversations around the Rio games:

Share of voice of each Olympic athlete, August 14–21.

From August 14–21, Bolt received as many mentions as Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, swimmer Katie Ledecky and soccer star Neymar put together. Every one of them was a gold medallist at Rio.

Over that final week, Bolt made good on his goal. He achieved the “triple triple,” and promptly called an end to his Olympic career. He will retire after the 2017 World Championships.

He may not have Michael Phelps’ 28 Olympic medals, but his nine golds makes him the most successful track and field athlete of all time, tied with Carl Lewis and Paavo Nurmi.

Michael Phelps

The Rio Olympics were Michael Phelps’ swansong. Following yet another spectacular Olympic campaign, Phelps hung up his Speedo for good. Sure, he also “retired” after the 2012 Olympics only to return, but this time he means it.

Phelps was easily the most talked-about athlete at Rio 2016:

Social mentions of the top Rio athletes, August 5–21.

That’s nearly one million mentions on Twitter alone, from August 5–21 (the dates of the Olympics). Second place (Simone Biles) isn’t really even close.

There are a few possible reasons for all these Phelps conversations:

1. His dominant performance

Before the games kicked off, predictions for USA swimming were unusually cautious. One of the secrets to USA swimming’s success is that Phelps wins a tonne of medals every Olympics. This time, the team’s “golden bullet” — was entering his fifth Olympics at age 31. He was also expected to enter as few as four events.

Luckily, Phelps joined the two freestyle relay teams at the last minute.

The result? Five gold medals and one silver.

2. He now has the most medals of all time

One funny tidbit out of Rio came when Phelps bested yet another record. This one was old — classical studies old. He broke a record that had apparently stood since 152BC.

When Phelps won the 200m individual medley on August 12, he took his 13th gold medal. That beat the previous best of 12 golds held by Leonidas of Rhodes. Leonidas won three running events at four consecutive Olympics from 164–152BC.

3. Cupping

August 7–8 was the high mark for social conversations surrounding Phelps. As we’ve seen, those 24 hours saw 260,455 mentions of the swimmer:

Social mentions of Michael Phelps, August 5–21.

Not only did he win his first gold medal of the Rio games (his 19th overall), people also noticed an array of strange dark circles on his shoulders and back:

These were due to “cupping,” an ancient Chinese therapy used extensively by athletes at the Rio Olympics. Cupping became a major story thanks to Phelps’ celebrity, as news media worldwide quickly looked into the practice.

News articles discussing cupping August 5, 21.

More than 8,500 articles and blog posts went live discussing the topic since Phelps’ swim on August 7.

If we compare the four athletes featured above, we can see how consistently Phelps dominated the conversation:

Bolt didn’t race until midway through the games, and kept a relatively low profile until that point. Djokovic was out early, and Biles never reached the peaks levels of conversation that Phelps saw.

Michael Phelps was the talk of social media from his first medal on August 7, until his final swim on August 13. And his sheer dominance kept him in the minds of fans until the end of the Olympics.

In the end, the greatest Olympian of all time was also the biggest name on social media.

Ryan Lochte :(

Our final athlete had a rocky time in Rio, to say the least. Ryan Lochte was relatively anonymous in the pool, winning a single gold medal in the 4x200m freestyle relay.

But Lochte and his teammates went on to become one of the stories of the Rio games.

On Sunday 14 August, news emerged that the group had been robbed at gunpoint. Brazilian authorities found no evidence of this. On Wednesday 17, Lochte’s teammates Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger were removed from a flight headed home to the US. By Friday 19, news media worldwide reported that the whole story had been made up:

News articles about Ryan Lochte, August 5–31.

In total, nearly 102,000 news stories were written about Ryan Lochte from August 14 until his suspension from swimming on September 8. Unfortunately for Lochte, this media storm was almost entirely negative:


So what’s the big takeaway from all this? No surprises, really. The most popular athletes were also the biggest names. The people we expected to be talked about most, were.

Some of that is self-fulfilling. These athletes received massive media coverage. The media told us “what to watch for,” so naturally we tuned in to see the stars, and shared our reactions on social media.

But I was personally surprised by the level of support for Djokovic. I didn’t think that anybody really cared about Olympic tennis. Clearly, I was wrong.

And could anyone have predicted what would eventuate whenLochte and his merry bunch went out late in Rio de Janeiro? If so, find a way to monetize that gift.

Most of all, it was just fun to play with Mention’s Twitter tracking tools during such a big event. We gathered all sorts of fascinating information about demographics, public sentiment, and conversation topics.

What sorts of information would you have liked about the Rio Olympics? Let me know in the comments. Maybe we can help.

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Simple yet powerful monitoring tool for your brand, competition, industry, and more, anywhere online.

Patrick Whatman

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My Mum's friend said I look like a young Liam Neeson. Content marketing at (



Simple yet powerful monitoring tool for your brand, competition, industry, and more, anywhere online.

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