Looking at who Olympians follow on Twitter

February 21, 2014

During the past two weeks, I, like hundreds of millions of other people across the world, have been following the Olympics. While at night I'll watch on TV, during the day my main source of what's happening is through information in tweets and links shared on Twitter.

With Twitter being such a large part of how I follow the Olympics, and with Twitter's frequent presence during the TV coverage of the Olympics (good luck getting through a commercial break without seeing a hashtag!), I thought it would be fascinating to see who the people the games are all about – the Olympians – follow themselves on Twitter.


To find out, I whipped up some Ruby scripts to interact with the Twitter API. The first step was to find a Twitter list of the group to analyze. Official Twitter accounts for organizations often keep lists of group members, which was the case for @USOlympics.

After saving the list members' Twitter ids, the next step was to loop through each username and save the Twitter ids of everyone they follow. The Twitter API has some pretty brutal rate limiting, which causes this step to take a long time -- the 2014 list took around 8 hours to run through. 

Once that script finally finished running, the results of who each user followed could be merged and sorted to find the top 1000 users mutually followed by members of the list.

Lastly, a few thousand Twitter ids wouldn't mean much to anyone, so the API needed to pinged again to get the corresponding details for the id: username, full name, avatar, bio, etc.


Now to the results. Here are a few of things I noticed: 

  • For the Sochi Winter Olympics, the most followed Olympian by U.S. Olympians is Steven Langton, a bobsledder with around 9 thousand followers in total, but 34.4% of the Olympic team. For the Summer Olympics, the most followed Olympian is hurdler/bobsledder Lolo Jones. Jones is followed by 30.8% of the 2012 U.S. Summer Olympic team (and 23.6% of the 2014 U.S. Winter Olympic team).
  • There's no obvious correlation between total number of followers and the number of followers by from the Olympic team. If there is a correlation, there are some major deviations. When I started the script I assumed that since Shaun White has 1.3 million followers he would also be most common Olympian followed by Olympians. Instead there are four more frequently followed athletes, each with comparatively much smaller follower counts.
  • Olympians like to follow comedians! Ellen DeGeneres, Daniel Tosh, Stephen Colbert, and Jimmy Fallon were near the top. 

To make it easier to explore the data on your own, I set each Olympic team up with their own page that can be browsed. Click on each below to view them. I also included the Canadian Olympic team for those interested in the results for our friendly neighbors to the north.

If you notice anything particularly interesting with the results, I'd love it if you shared it in the comments below!

Sochi USA

London USA

Sochi Canada

Additionally, if there is a group of people you'd like us to run the script against (for example, members of Congress), please feel free to let us know too. I may write a few more follow up blog posts with the results for other groups.

Flag images via Wikipedia. Banner image via the U.S. Army's Flickr account.

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