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Olympic and Social Flip-Flops: Phelps vs. Lochte

August 2, 2012

Before the start of the Olympics, US Swimmer Ryan Lochte claimed that this year was “[his] time” to shine. After swimming faster than famed Michael Phelps in some preliminary races, it looked as though he could be right. As the first few days of the swimming finals have progressed, Lochte has indeed proven himself worthy of attention: his swimming prowess, particularly in the medley events, is undeniable. But to what extent does public sentiment actually correspond with athletic ability and results? What type of role does the personality of the athlete play? How do spectators on the social Web react to a somewhat personal de-throning of a reigning champion?

In terms of pure volume, the level of discussion on Twitter for each athlete does mirror the results of athletic events: graphs comparing the two are full of intersections, where one line surpasses the other for a short time after a big race, only to reverse again later. Such trends can be seen in the criss-crossing of the below graph, which shows mention volumes for the two athletes by both Twitter handle and name (intersections are highlighted in yellow):

Mentions of Phelps and Lochte on Twitter over July 27 – Aug 1. Note the intersection of trendlines which indicate a “switch” in popularity on Twitter.

Though the race results reflected in the line crossings above indicate that Lochte and Phelps might be close this year in ability, they are perhaps not quite so close in behavior. Phelps has been deemed more “mature” and “reserved” this year by NBC commentators, while Lochte has been a bit more outspoken and featured in commercials as the new Olympic golden boy. How do the two stack up in terms of public sentiment?

The below sentiment chart was constructed using Topsy’s Social Sentiment algorithm for the terms “Phelps” and “Lochte” on Twitter. With this algorithm, a score of 50 is neutral, >50 is considered positive, and <50 is considered negative. Lochte had been reprimanded by the IOC for his American-themed “grill” mouthpiece on the evening of July 28th, and by the next day, his sentiment score dropped only slightly; however, his subsequent performance in the last leg of the relay against France on July 29th (which the US then lost) caused his score to plummet. Shortly afterwards, on July 30th, Phelps tied the historic Olympic record for most medals won by a single athlete, and the two rapidly switched positions:

Sentiment chart for tweets about Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps over July 27 – August 1, 2012. Again, note the ‘flip flop’ in sentiment scores possibly due to slight differences in athletic performance and personality.

There is a chance that the two might flip-flop again tonight, when they go head-to-head in the 200M individual medley. Stay tuned for more updates on select Olympic rivalries by Topsy.

Posted by nicole