The fleeting nature of an Olympic meme: Virality and IOC TV rights

Dr Merryn Sherwood

Senior Lecturer in Journalism in La Trobe University. She is a former sports journalist, who has worked at two Olympic Games, and two Youth Olympic Games. Her research and teaching centres on disruption in media, with a focus on sport.

Twitter: @mes_sherwood

Section 2: Media Coverage & Representation

It was billed as one of the top competitions of the Games, the showdown between America’s Katie Ledecky and Australia’s Ariane Titmus in the women’s 400m freestyle at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. In a perfectly executed play, Titmus came from behind in the final lap to take the gold – but suddenly she found herself sidelined in the coverage.

In the stands her coach Dean Boxall had let loose with an unbridled celebration. Ripping off his mask and running from his designated area, he thrusted against the glass and threw up his hands, in moves he later said were inspired WWE wrestler The Ultimate Warrior.

In the next 24 hours, the moment went viral. Boxall’s exuberant celebration was the latest reaction meme. NBC Olympics, the broadcaster in the US, tweeted the video with the caption ‘when the pre-workout kicks in’ and others followed.

But in the few days after this the impact was dulled, as one by one viral tweets had copyright infringements put up and the vision disappeared. For example a tweet by Australian journalist Josh Butler that had 11.7k likes now has a message – ‘this content has been disabled by the copyright owner’. Instead, the only accounts that could use it were Olympics rights-holders and only for users in the geographical location. 

It was a stark reminder how in the digital age the Olympics has never had more potential reach, but that the IOC’s reliance on TV rights agreements for cash significantly limits that digital reach during the Games. 

The reason for this is not surprising, television rights still make up 73% of the International Olympic Committee’s revenue. It’s no wonder that Tokyo went ahead, without crowds in a city locked down in a state of emergency, when the main aim was to produce a broadcast product to fulfill the commitment to its rights-holders.

Given the amount paid for these rights, it’s also unsurprising that broadcasters try to protect these by lodging copyright infringement notices, and attempt to push the public to their own TV and social channels for impact. After all, they also bought digital rights in their packages.

But the lack of quick sports highlights on social platforms was clear from Tokyo. The official Olympics account could only post images after medal events, like this one. It’s a stark difference to most of the world’s professional sports leagues. The NBA’s approach for example is all about sharing social media highlights widely and quickly to a global audience.

This leaves Olympics fans to find content through their own national broadcaster, which may or may not have made them available. In Australia in 2016 broadcaster Channel 7 made Australian viewers pay for premium access through an app. In the UK in 2021, the BBC on-sold some events to to pay-TV channel Discovery. 

Fundamentally in an era where the IOC is simultaneously trying to win over younger viewers by adding in sports like climbing and skateboarding, to limit the availability of Games footage to television broadcasters that are not favored by the younger generations seems like a challenge. 

One answer may potentially be the over the top streaming services that have started to edge their way into the sports rights market dominated by traditional broadcasters, but they haven’t yet been able to do so in a major way.

In the end, Dean Boxall’s moment of fame managed to escape the grip of rights-restrictions, as it lived on in images and screenshots. For example, when the Australian state of Victoria reached a day of zero Covid-19 cases in August 2021, Victoria’s Chief Health Officer posted the image of Boxall against the glass in response to the official government tweet.

Whether the Olympics can similarly escape its lucrative but restrictive TV rights agreements to maximize its digital impact remains to be seen.