Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s information ecosystem.
Riddle me this: Michael Phelps came in first. Simone Biles was fourth. Aly Raisman and Katie Ledecky were fifth and sixth, respectively. Hint: The answer is not medal counts. Nor is it GOAT athlete status. Nope, those were the rankings of the most-visited pages on English Wikipedia for the week of Aug. 7, 2016, during the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Phelps’ page received the most traffic that week, with more than 5.4 million page views, while Biles, Raisman, and Ledecky received more than 4.25 million page views, collectively.
On Friday, and despite much controversy, the delayed Tokyo Olympic Games officially opened. Although some aspects will be quite different—like the fact that the venues are largely empty of spectators—there will be similar opportunities to engage with the Games via the internet. Once again, millions of people are expected to consult the free Wikipedia biographies available for the athletes.
Even if you don’t visit Wikipedia directly, information from the internet encyclopedia filters out to the broader internet. Googling “Simone Biles” reveals a Google Knowledge panel that is sourced directly from Wikipedia. Likewise, asking Alexa about Biles will prompt the smart speaker to read a summary from her Wikipedia page. In other words, these Big Tech companies are serving up Wikipedia’s free info with the same relentless consistency with which NBC blasts the “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” before commercials.
But what should readers know if they’re accessing Wikipedia as a second screen during the Olympic Games? “I think most people know that Wikipedia can quickly become a never-ending rabbit hole, and the sheer number of Olympic links and templates can lead people to all corners of the project,” Paul Tchir told me in an email. Tchir is a Wikipedia editor and Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of California–San Diego, and he is especially interested in the history of the Olympic Games. Tchir told me that brave souls might venture way back into Wikipedia’s Olympic history vault with articles like “List of Olympic Medalists in Art Competitions,” which covers the 146 medalists in the art competitions that were part of the Games from 1912 until 1948. (Disclaimer: Slate is not responsible for any hours of lost productivity incurred from reading the Wikipedia pages for 20th-century Olympic medalists in painting, statues, or municipal planning.)
For more recent coverage, a good starting place is Wikipedia’s Olympic Games Portal, which branches out to pages on all of the sports (including this year’s five new sports), the daily events, the daily medal counts, and the Paralympic Games. When I spoke to the volunteer editors who are highly involved in creating articles for the Tokyo athletes, they told me the process wasn’t always easy. “The subject of pictures is the most painful one,” wrote Wikipedia user Nimrodbr, who is active in the volunteer group WikiProject Olympics. At press time, some of the key athletes on the United States women’s and men’s gymnastics teams, including stars like Jordan Chiles and Brody Malone, do not yet have featured images on their respective Wikipedia pages. That’s because the rights of images from sports competitions usually belong to the broadcaster or the sporting federation, and Wikipedia editors are careful to avoid copyright violations. Nimrodbr mentioned that he knows some Wikipedia editors who have gone to sporting competitions in Israel and Argentina to support athletes and photograph them live. If the competition allows spectators to take photos, then Wikipedia editors can upload the pics to Wikipedia as their own work under a Creative Commons license, meaning the athlete finally has a picture on their Wikipedia page.
Besides the lack of photos, another potential pitfall is bias. One of the common criticisms of Wikipedia is that the content is biased against women. Less than 19 percent of the biographies on English-language Wikipedia are about women, and women who meet Wikipedia’s criteria for inclusion are more frequently considered non-notable and nominated for deletion compared with men’s biographies, according to research presented in a recent paper by Francesca Tripodi, assistant professor in the School of Information and Library Science and senior researcher at the Center for Information Technology and Public Life at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. “Many of the women nominated for deletion in my sample met the guidelines for inclusion [on Wikipedia], but were still seen as non-notable,” Tripodi told me in an email.
For instance, Laura Zeng is an American rhythmic gymnast competing in Tokyo whose page was nominated for deletion in June 2010 after an editor claimed the article was a “hopeless vanity piece.” Luckily Zeng’s Wikipedia page has since been restored, and in recent weeks, Zeng has been educating American audiences on Instagram about her lesser-known sport.
Wikipedia has a general rule that any athlete who competes in the modern Olympic Games is presumed to be sufficiently notable to have a Wikipedia entry. Tchir told me that Wikipedia’s notability policy is itself controversial with both new and old Wikipedia editors. For instance, the gymnast P. Gussman, who finished no better than 43rd in any individual event at the 1904 St. Louis Games, is automatically entitled to a Wikipedia page because he competed at the Olympics. On the other hand, the Wikipedia entry for physicist Donna Strickland was rejected back in 2018 for lack of academic notability, despite the fact she was a leader in her field and won the Nobel Prize later that same year. To a vocal subset of Wikipedia editors, it feels as if Olympic athletes have a much easier time getting Wikipedia pages than everyone else.
Because of the notability policy, most of the American athletes at the Tokyo Games will have Wikipedia pages. But the information Wikipedia contains about those athletes varies considerably according to language edition. For instance, the English Wikipedia article about Liu Tingting, the captain of the Chinese women’s gymnastics team, is about half the length of the page for Simone Biles. Tingting’s page also does not include a photo of her, likely due to the copyright restrictions described above. Furthermore, Tingting’s page on the Mandarin Chinese edition of Wikipedia is only a few lines long. That brevity might be the function of China’s having blocked all language editions of Wikipedia in the country since 2019, meaning that many of the site’s contributors now live outside of China.
I asked Rebecca Schuman, a gymnastics writer who was recently featured on Peacock’s documentary Golden, to give her overall assessment of the American gymnastic team’s Wikipedia articles. Although she did not detect any obvious misstatements on the Wikipedia pages she reviewed, Schuman noticed that the articles sometimes ignored more controversial subjects. For instance, MyKayla Skinner’s page minimizes her poor conduct on social media back in 2016, and Jordan Chiles’ page does not (yet) include content about her mother’s prison sentence for wire fraud, which a judge recently postponed for 30 days. In other words, the Wikipedia pages neglect some of the sport’s characteristic melodrama. It could be the case that Wikipedia is written largely by those much-maligned four-year fans—that is, people who only follow gymnastics during years with the Olympic Games. “I have never seen the internet of gym fans vociferously engage with Wikipedia,” Schuman said, adding, “The Gymternet has its own places where they talk.” Those non-Wikipedia channels include the GymCastic podcast, Reddit threads, or interacting with the legendary Dvora Meyers on Twitter.
Some volunteer Wikipedia editors have dedicated countless hours to less-popular Olympic sports. Axel Downward-Wilkes is a 54-year-old New Zealand editor who has created more than 1,000 Wikipedia pages about rowers. During the Olympics, he plans to edit primarily in the sport of rowing, but he recently branched out by writing a page for Ella Williams, a New Zealand surfer who is set to compete in the inaugural shortboard surfing competition at the Tokyo Games. “I’m surprised that New Zealand isn’t represented in skateboarding, as it’s a really popular sport for our youngsters,” Downward-Wilkes said.
On balance, Wikipedia is a great resource to have on hand throughout the Tokyo Games, so long as the users are aware of its imperfections. But Tchir, the Olympic historian, encouraged readers to try out the lesser-known project Olympedia as a second screen. “When the announcer says that something is the best result for Egypt in athletics ever, [Olympedia has] a page to verify that and see what the old record was,” Tchir said. There are structural differences between the two sites: Wikipedia famously bills itself as the encyclopedia anyone can edit, whereas Olympedia is restricted to about two dozen trusted academics and researchers who specialize in Olympic history. Since Olympedia only allows trusted researchers, there is less concern about the attacks and vandalism that sometimes crop up on Wikipedia’s Olympics pages. This year the Wikipedia page for Laurel Hubbard, a New Zealand weightlifter and transgender woman competing at the Tokyo Games, has been targeted by anonymous editors who changed Hubbard’s pronouns in the article from she to he. Wikipedia’s volunteer editors reverted the changes quickly, in some cases within a matter of minutes, and Hubbard’s page is now semiprotected, meaning only editors with registered usernames and a prior editing history can make changes to the content.
Although Olympedia produces less edit-warring than Wikipedia, the site’s expertise requirement shows the classic trade-off between closed vs. open platforms. As Tchir put it, “While we do have a great team that will be updating [Olympedia] quickly during the games, we just can’t compete with the hundreds, or even thousands, of editors who will be contributing to the topic on Wikipedia.”