Tokyo 2020: Olympic athletes targeted by false and misleading claims

By Shruti Menon
BBC Reality Check

Simone Bilesimage sourceReuters
image captionSimone Biles withdrew from some events at the Olympics

As the Tokyo Olympics comes to an end, social media posts have been spreading misleading content about some of the competitors, and the events in which they competed.

We’ve selected some of the more widely-shared examples.

No, Simone Biles wasn’t stopped from taking medication

Screengrab of social post about Simone Biles

A viral post on Facebook – now with a warning flag on it from the social media platform – falsely claims that the US star gymnast stopped competing in some events because she wasn’t allowed to take medication for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

Simone Biles revealed in 2016 that she was on medication for it.

When she pulled out of the women’s gymnastics team final last week, she said it was to focus on her mental health.

But unfounded claims spread widely on social media, saying that she’d been unable to take ADHD medication because it’s banned in Japan.

It’s true that Japan bans some drugs used for ADHD, but there are special exemptions for athletes competing in the Olympics.

But more importantly, Team USA have told us the claim about the medication is not true because she’s not using it.

Speaking after winning a bronze in the beam final in Tokyo, Biles herself dealt with the speculation head on, and said she had not taken ADHD medication since 2017.

No, a Saudi athlete did not die after losing to an Israeli

False claims about the death of Saudi judo competitor Tahani Al-Qahtani went viral on social media after she lost to her Israeli opponent, Raz Hershko.

The posts claimed that she had suffered a heart attack because she was subject to bullying and abuse online after she lost.

Screengrab of social post about Saudi athlete

But this is wrong and the athlete is very much alive.

Qahtani had faced criticism from social media users for agreeing to compete against an Israeli, after other Arab competitors withdrew from a different judo event because they did not want to do the same thing.

The rumours began circulating after a fake website pretending to be Saudi Sabq, a popular Arabic online news portal, posted an article with the claim.

It was by-lined to the deputy editor of Saudi Sabq, Abdullah Al-Barqawi.

But Mr Barqawi has issued a warning on Twitter about false news reports attributed to him and to the online portal.

He didn’t mention the specific claim about the athlete, but officials from the Saudi Olympic Committee have denied the reports and said she is in very good health.

She herself spoke about the match a day later, saying that she wasn’t interested in the controversy surrounding it.

No, Japanese table tennis players did not breach Covid guidelines

Screengrab of social post about Japanese table tennis playersimage sourceEmpics

The mixed doubles table tennis final became the subject of heated discussion on Chinese social media, when their pair lost to a Japanese duo.

The gold-medal winning Jun Mizutani and Mima Ito’s actions in blowing on the ball and touching the table during the match were said to be in violation of rules on Covid safety.

On Weibo, the Chinese social media platform, the hashtag “Mima Ito touches the table” has been viewed more than 13 million times, with some users saying the Japanese players should not have won.

One Chinese-language website said their actions were “ignored by the referee”.

There are International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) Covid safety recommendations, which advise players not to engage in “hand-wiping on the table” and “breathing on the ball for tackiness”.

Some players blow on the ball to make sure it’s as dry as possible when they serve.

The ITTF states that a violation of Covid rules will attract a fine or suspension of the athlete from a competition, so we contacted them to ask about this match.

They put us in touch with leading referee Werner Thury, who explained that the way Ito touched the table during her service did not amount to “hand-wiping on the table surface”.

He also said that Mizutani’s blowing did not violate Covid guidelines because his mouth was not close enough to the ball.

The ITTF also made clear to us that while potential violations of Covid guidelines are investigated, this is a separate process and the outcome of a match is decided on points alone.

No, a banner behind an Indian medal winner did not thank PM Modi

Screengrab of social post about Indian medal winner

In India, a social media post went viral showing silver medal-winning weightlifter Mirabai Chanu at an official ceremony of congratulations, with a banner thanking Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visible in the background.

The banner shows a picture of Mr Modi. There is also some Hindi-language text on the banner which reads: “Thank you Mr Modi for getting Mirabai Chanu a medal.”

Some of those sharing the post asked: “Did Mirabai Chanu get the medal through her hard work or did Mr Modi get it for her?”

The image has been manipulated and the text about thanking Mr Modi added into it.

Original image without text thanking PM Modiimage sourcePress Information Bureau, India

The original banner does contain an image of Mr Modi and some text with the name of the athlete, but nothing about thanking the prime minister.

The original appears on some government social media accounts and in a government press release.

Additional reporting by Ahmed Nour and Wanyuan Song.

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