Simone Biles competes in the women's balance beam final in the 2020 Olympic Games on Aug. 3, 2021, in Tokyo.
Simone Biles competes in the women’s balance beam final in the 2020 Olympic Games on Aug. 3, 2021, in Tokyo. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Although gymnast Simone Biles’ medal count fell slightly short of the sports world’s lofty expectations in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, she dominated among U.S. Olympians in the number of times her handle, @Simone_Biles, was mentioned on Twitter.

Pew Research Center captured the Twitter handles of every athlete who listed a profile on the official Team USA page and looked at tweets from the broader Twitter audience that directly mentioned those handles during the Games. Here are some key takeaways for how the public engaged with Team USA on Twitter.

Most social media sites allow users to directly engage with other users by tagging their handles or screen names in their posts. This analysis looks at how users of one major social platform – Twitter – used the site to tag Team USA athletes during the recently completed 2020 Olympic Games. To conduct this analysis, we collected every athlete Twitter handle listed on the official Team USA page as of approximately July 26, 2021. All athletes (including a small number of alternates) who were listed and had a Twitter handle at that time were included in the analysis.

Researchers collected all tweets posted between July 21 and Aug. 9 that mentioned any of these 438 Twitter handles using the Gnip Historical PowerTrack API, a searchable archive of all publicly available tweets. This analysis focuses on direct mentions of U.S. Olympians via their Twitter handles (such as @KDTrey5 or @Simone_Biles) and not more generic references (such as “Kevin Durant,” “KD” or “Biles”).

Read the methodology for more on how this analysis was conducted.

Twitter users directly mentioned the accounts of U.S. Olympians more than 2.1 million times during the Games

All told, 598 athletes were listed on the Team USA website at the start of the Games. And 438 of them (73% of the total) included a Twitter handle in their athlete profile. From July 21 through Aug. 9, 2021 – the Games themselves, postponed from the year before, were held July 23 to Aug. 8 – more than 900,000 different Twitter accounts directly mentioned the handles of U.S. Olympians in more than 2.1 million tweets. The vast majority (90%) of those athlete accounts were mentioned at least once during that time.

These mentions were especially concentrated on a few key dates. Nearly a third (31%) of all athlete mentions occurred during the three days of July 27-29, a period that included the women’s team and individual gymnastics finals and swimmer Katie Ledecky winning the gold medal in the 1,500-meter freestyle.

Simone Biles alone made up 31% of all mentions of U.S. Olympians

A chart showing that Simone Biles was mentioned in 31% of all tweets referencing handles of U.S. Olympians during the Tokyo Games

One athlete in particular – gymnast Simone Biles – stood out above all others in the number of times she was mentioned by the Twitter audience. Of the more than 2.1 million tweets that mentioned the handle of any U.S. Olympians during the Games, @Simone_Biles was referenced in more than 650,000 tweets, or 31% of the total. Biles was even more omnipresent from July 27-29, when her handle accounted for 64% of all athlete mentions. (It’s worth noting that many individual tweets mentioned multiple athletes.)

Mentions of Biles included expressions of support as well as discussion of her withdrawal from competition

Original tweets and replies mentioning Biles’ handle during the Games tended to disproportionately use certain terms and phrases relative to tweets that mentioned other Olympians. Many of these terms appear to be in reference to Biles’ decision to withdraw from competition in some events.

Some of the most distinctive terms included supportive phrases like “love [and] support,” “courage” and “brave.” Other phrases (such as “quitter” or “quitting”) referenced her withdrawal in a more negative light, while others referred to issues like “mental health” and “abuse.”

These terms were up to 52 times more prevalent in tweets mentioning Biles than in those mentioning other athletes. Even so, these “distinctive” terms were relatively rare. For instance, just 4% of original tweets that tagged @Simone_Biles directly used the terms “quit,” “quitter” or “quitting.”

Nearly 80% of athlete mentions referenced members of the gymnastics, basketball, and track and field teams

A pie chart showing that nearly 80% of Twitter mentions of U.S. Olympians referenced athletes in gymnastics, basketball, track and field

The Twitter handles collected from the Team USA website included athletes from 32 different sports. But just three of those sports – gymnastics, basketball, and track and field – produced the vast majority of individual athlete mentions on Twitter. Athletes from these three sports accounted for 79% of all mentions of U.S. Olympians during the Games, while athletes from the other 29 sports accounted for just 21% of all mentions.

A majority of tweets mentioning U.S. Olympians offered no original commentary: 62% were direct retweets, often of tweets posted by athletes themselves. The remaining tweets included replies in which the poster included an athlete’s handle (18%), original tweets (14%) and direct replies to tweets from the accounts of Team USA members (7%).

Other frequently mentioned athletes included Kevin Durant, Sunisa Lee

A table showing that ten Team USA members made up 62% of all athlete mentions on Twitter during 2020 Games

In addition to Biles, a small group of prominent athletes accounted for a significant share of mentions of all U.S. Olympian handles during the Games. The 10 most-mentioned handles accounted for 62% of all individual athlete mentions. The most-mentioned athletes tended to be drawn from the most-mentioned sports – specifically gymnastics (Biles and Sunisa Lee), basketball (Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Damian Lillard, A’ja Wilson and Devin Booker) and track and field (Allyson Felix). But they also included a soccer player (Megan Rapinoe) and swimmer (Ledecky).

The 10 most-mentioned athletes included six women and four men. All four male athletes are professional NBA basketball players. But the most-mentioned women come from a variety of sports: gymnastics, basketball, swimming, track and field, and soccer.

Note: Read the methodology for more on how this analysis was conducted.

Sono Shah  is a computational social scientist focusing on data science at Pew Research Center.