But audiences on TikTok already came across several clips of Biles’s uncharacteristic performance Tuesday morning, as homemade videos began to circulate on the social media app.
One video from the account @uniquelytheecoach — shot on what appears to be a phone camera held up to a laptop screen shows Biles streak down the mat and launch herself off the vault, twisting one and a half times in the air before landing hard, bending her knees deeply and taking a spring forward.
“Oh my god. Oh my god,” the TikTok creator comments in the background. “Wow.”
The video received 1.2 million views. Biles subsequently decided to take a step back from competition, citing mental health concerns.
This is the first Summer Olympics in the age of TikTok, and coverage of the games on the short-form video app looks wildly different from TV. Many viewers don’t want to wait for big moments to air on prime time or sit through commercial breaks. Twitter offers quippy takes and YouTube deeper dives. But the surge of clips like the footage of Biles’s vault or intimate shots of gymnast Sunisa Lee’s flawless makeup before competition shows Gen Z viewers will tune in for personality-driven content delivered quickly on TikTok.
“In this day and age, the average Olympic viewer is not loyal to a TV network or station, but they are loyal to people,” said Ali Fazal, vice president of marketing at influencer marketing company Grin. “Now, there are a lot more ways to engage rather than hoping your right customer is tuning into NBC at the exact right time.”
Search “Olympics” on TikTok, and many of the most-watched videos come not from NBC but from athletes themselves. Olympic athletes have grabbed headlines for their TikTok content during the Games, including unpolished walk-throughs of the Olympic Village, goofy dorm room competitions and plenty of jumping on cardboard beds.
U.S. men’s rugby team member Cody Melphy posted dozens of videos after arriving in the Olympic Village, gaining hundreds of thousands of followers — and some potentially lucrative outreach from brands — in the process, he said.
“TikTok is a way to express myself outside of rugby,” Melphy said. “I can do and say what I want and kind of have fun.”
People on TikTok often gravitate toward content that emphasizes personal stories, 21-year-old rhythmic gymnast Elena Shinohara said.
By using the app’s duet function to remix and comment on videos from the official @TeamUSA TikTok, she figures she’d be able to introduce her 4.9 million followers to her favorite Olympic athletes and their stories without breaking any rules. In the meantime, she’s continued to post videos of her own routines, including a clip of her chasing a dropped hoop during the U.S. Gymnastics Championships last month. The song “Track Star” by Mooski plays as Shinohara runs after the fumbled prop.
“People on TikTok love fails,” she said.
TikTok, owned by China’s ByteDance, hasn’t had as many daily active users as other social media destinations during the Olympics, but its growth has outpaced its competitors during the Games, according to data from analytics company Similarweb. It had about 27 million daily users on average in the U.S. on Android devices between July 23 to July 27 compared with YouTube’s 67 million, but those daily users grew 3.6 percent, compared with YouTube’s 1.8 percent and Instagram’s 0.8 percent. TikTok also had the most downloads of any nongaming app worldwide in June, data from Sensor Tower showed.
TikTok’s on-the-nose algorithm serves up content it thinks each user will like. It became so popular during the pandemic that it sparked national security concerns. The White House, under President Donald Trump, issued an executive order banning it, which never happened. President Biden revoked the ban in June, issuing a new executive order calling for a review of the threats foreign companies pose to U.S. citizens and their personal data.
Consumers still have flocked to TikTok, especially Gen Z: Half of the app’s users are younger than 25, according to market research firm eMarketer. It recently increased its video length limit from one minute to three minutes, which some speculated was a move to better monetize its content for advertisers and compete with YouTube. While it’s still unclear how many users will take advantage of longer videos, brands are turning to the app to connect with audiences in a way that feels “authentic” and off the cuff, said Fazal.
But athletes and other creators aren’t allowed to post anything that violates NBC’s broadcast rights to the Games in the United States, according to International Olympic Committee Digital and Social Media Guidelines, which forbid athletes from sharing any media from the “field of play.” That includes the stands and sidelines. In fact, the only TikTok accounts authorized to show clips from competition to users in the U.S. are @NBCOlympics, @NBCSports, @NBCGolf and @peacocktv, according to TikTok spokeswoman Megan Cook. Even @Olympics isn’t allowed to post in-game content from the Tokyo Olympics. (Although this video addressing particularly pernicious rumors about the cardboard beds has done well.)
“Although copyright violations do occur, they are routinely stopped quickly and the infringing viewership is small compared to the billions of streaming minutes that will be legitimately consumed on our platforms and throughout our digital partnerships,” said an NBC spokesman.
Cook said TikTok takes copyright infringement “very seriously” and the company is working with NBC to ensure that its intellectual property is protected by TikTok.
Some athletes are working around the rules.
“[NBC is] very intense about it, which is a shame,” said Ian Gunther, a member of the U.S. men’s gymnastics national team. Gunther posts videos breaking down different skills and educating his 122,000 TikTok followers about the history of men’s gymnastics. He said he hoped splicing videos and adding annotations may help him get around the rules if he posts any clips of his friends and teammates competing in this year’s Olympics at all.
NBC wouldn’t say whether it’s considered changing its rules to allow athletes and online creators to share their own recorded or screen-grabbed content. But Lyndsay Signor, senior vice president of marketing at NBC Sports Group, said the company understands that audiences on TikTok are looking for something different from traditional NBC Olympics coverage.
“I think it’s understood at this point that we need to make sure that we're not just trying to take something for linear [broadcasting] or a website or even Instagram and just put it on TikTok or Twitter or anywhere else,” she said.
NBC’s own Olympics-themed TikTok account, @NBCOlympics, is filled with highlights from competition, like weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz’s historic gold medal for the Philippines and American gymnast Sunisa Lee’s bar routine. It also dips into some classic TikTok formats, like the video where American taekwondo athlete Anastasija Zolotic kicks away superimposed text like “cheugy people” and “bad WiFi.”
Even with the introduction of NBC’s streaming service Peacock, watching the Olympics without a cable subscription has been complicated for many. But younger viewers may have it easier, according to Gunther.
“You don’t have to rely on your parents watching the Olympics anymore,” he said of broadcast coverage. “It’s going to be more accessible on TikTok.”