Dina Asher-Smith on the toxic trolling of sportswome­n

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Women's Sport Monthly - Dina Asher-Smith

For the past four to five months I’ve had Twit­ter unin­stalled from my phone. I only re­in­stall it when I have some work to post, to sup­port the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, or when my friends are com­pet­ing and I want to cel­e­brate them pub­licly. That’s it.

Twit­ter has be­come a bit too much for me. To main­tain my peace, I de­cided that it needed to be gone. Pre­vi­ously my so­cial net­work of choice, I sur­prised my­self with the com­plete 180-de­gree turn, but it had sim­ply be­come too much. And, hon­estly, say­ing good­bye has worked won­ders.

In the back­ground of my de­ci­sion was the tragic death of Caro­line Flack. I was shocked and hor­ri­fied when I heard the news, and I still am. She was such a recog­nis­able fig­ure. When I went on to my Twit­ter feed, I saw that a na­tional con­ver­sa­tion had be­gun around the ef­fects of cy­ber bul­ly­ing and so­cial me­dia on­slaughts, and par­tic­u­larly on vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple.

I remember see­ing tweets, com­ments and ar­ti­cles swiftly deleted, and then peo­ple ask­ing, “How were we meant to know she was so vul­ner­a­ble?” But is that even the point?

Then came the pan­demic. They have been ex­tremely dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances for us all, but I just kept see­ing too much har­row­ing in­for­ma­tion. Many – my­self in­cluded – felt ut­terly pow­er­less. The death tolls con­tin­ued to rise, heart­break­ing in­for­ma­tion was com­ing from hos­pi­tals and care homes. The never-end­ing stream of bad news was tough to take in.

The fi­nal straw was the pro­longed trolling of a YouTuber called Nella Rose. When her fa­ther trag­i­cally passed away from coro­n­avirus peo­ple dou­bled down on their on­slaught and bul­ly­ing. Af­ter see­ing that, it was too much. I signed out.

In the past few weeks there have been yet more ex­am­ples that have made me want to write this col­umn. When TV net­works an­nounced that they were mak­ing changes to long­stand­ing pre­sen­ter and pun­dit line-ups, for­mer Eng­land foot­baller-turned broad­cast er Alex Scott was linked with the roles and im­me­di­ately bore the brunt of an­gry, vile, sex­ist and racist tweets.

Pri­vately, I’ve spent a con­sid­er­able amount of time con­sol­ing friends in our sport over up­sets brought about by so­cial me­dia com­ments. Thought­less, throwaway com­ments at best, but cal­lous, hate­ful words at worst.

With no ma­jor cham­pi­onship to aim for, this year has largely been left to ath­letes and their teams to nav­i­gate with­out a blue­print. Some were able to main­tain a sense of nor­malcy over lock­down, and have man­aged to com­pete.

Ath­letes such as Mondo Du­plan­tis, who just set a new pole vault world record at 6.15m, Laura Muir, who re­mains un­beaten over 1500m this year, or Jemma Reekie, who won the Rome Di­a­mond League 800m, are in in­cred­i­ble shape.

Oth­ers may not be in the shape they are used to.

From an ath­lete’s per­spec­tive, hav­ing up to four months away from a track, gym, coaches, phys­io­ther­a­pists and train­ing part­ners, while do­ing strength and con­di­tion­ing ses­sions in a back gar­den, is def­i­nitely go­ing to im­pact per­for­mance.

For ath­letes com­pet­ing in field events, and re­quir­ing a shared pit or mat at a big cen­tre such as Lough­bor­ough’s HiPac, the chal­lenge has been even greater. How do you avoid spread­ing Covid-19 when peo­ple are landing in the same space, over and over again? The an­swer is to limit avail­abil­ity. For sprint­ers and hur­dlers there were also strug­gles around equip­ment, wait­ing for reg­u­la­tions to ease on the use of blocks and hur­dles.

Oth­ers may be qui­etly in­jured, or on the verge of in­jury, a re­sult of the changes forced upon us by the pan­demic. To then see cal­lous com­ments about body im­age, weight-sham­ing, jibes about per­for­mances not be­ing where they usu­ally are, and pe­jo­ra­tive tones about an ath­letes’ choice of com­pe­ti­tion lo­ca­tion has un­der­stand­ably left some feel­ing up­set and em­bar­rassed. We have all, as a so­ci­ety, been in com­pletely new cir­cum­stances. We are learn­ing to nav­i­gate these in our own way, and we have to make de­ci­sions with long-term in­ter­ests in mind.

Ev­ery­one is hu­man. And ev­ery­one should be kind. But when it comes to high-pro­file fig­ures and so­cial me­dia, many tend to forget. Whilst no one is above valid, mea­sured and re­spect­ful crit­i­cism, ma­li­cious and in­con­sid­er­ate trolling is un­nec­es­sary.

I’m an op­ti­mist, and I be­lieve that peo­ple don’t in­tend to hurt oth­ers, they sim­ply throw com­ments on to the in­ter­net with­out think­ing that the sub­ject will ever read them.

Who pre­pares ath­letes for this?

Or, more broadly, who pre­pares those in the pub­lic eye for this? High-pro­file in­di­vid­u­als have never been more “ac­ces­si­ble” as they are to­day. Yes, in many as­pects that is amaz­ing. It means greater pro­file for sportswome­n, and there are more ways to be in touch with fans. Truly, the vast ma­jor­ity of in­ter­ac­tions on­line are over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive. But there is a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion that are not so nice.

We have to cre­ate a so­lu­tion for this. Celebri­ties com­ing off so­cial me­dia for pe­ri­ods, turn­ing off com­ments, block­ing mes­sages, hid­ing key­words and delet­ing ac­counts is not the way for­ward. For me, be­havioural change is the only so­lu­tion.

All of us have to look at our­selves and re­flect on what we post, in­ter­act with and click on. I in­clude my­self in that.

So, be­fore you put some­thing out there, does it need to be said? If the per­son who posted it was to read it out loud, ver­ba­tim, to the sub­ject, would it be em­bar­rass­ing? Would it be un­com­fort­able? Would they cringe?

Then ask your­self, is it nec­es­sary? Remember that ev­ery­one is hu­man. Be mind­ful. Be kind.

No one is above crit­i­cism, but ev­ery­one should think be­fore post­ing on­line

In the fir­ing line: Alex Scott, Caro­line Flack (be­low left) and Nella Rose (be­low) have all been the tar­get of Twit­ter abuse

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