OLYMPIC CURLING CHAMPION Matt Hamilton has one of the greatest mustaches in sports history. It’s a fact. At least, it’s a fact according to Wikipedia, which at one time or another has also claimed the Wisconsin native was a long-lost relative of Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros., a true American hero, a cougar hunter, a viper, and for a short time, well, married to his sister. (He was most definitely not. Although the mustache and the hero thing check out.) Every four years right around the time of the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics, Hamilton and his curling compatriots get to experience one of the stranger sides of sports stardom when, for a fortnight, they become targets in the fascinating, frequently insipid — and occasionally clever — secret world of Wikipedia sports vandalism.
For curlers that can mean anything from having the proper definition of their sport temporarily replaced at the online, community-generated encyclopedia with “for old people who can hardly move” — or worse. Sometimes it means entire Wikipedia articles filled with just the phrase “curling is not a sport. curling is not a sport. curling is not a sport.”
In Hamilton’s case, his personal favorite was the claim that he was “very involved with his charity to cure irritable bowel syndrome because he suffers from it himself.” Although, the mustache claim is a close second. “Robin Yount? I mean, I’m not even the most famous Wisconsinite with an awesome mustache but I love that I’m even in the conversation, so those Wikipedia edits are cool with me,” says Hamilton during a training break in Los Angeles just days before flying to Beijing. “Most people know it’s all peer edited so anyone can go in there and tinker with it. It’s the Internet, it’s gonna do what it does and say what it says, so the only way to beat the system is to ignore it.”
That has become increasingly difficult, however, with the growing onslaught of Wikipedia sports vandalism. Outside of an Olympic year, Wikivandals now hit after nearly every major or dramatic sporting event. The usually good-natured electronic vandalism often comes in the form of someone like Steph Curry being inserted as the “owner” on the Los Angeles Lakers Wikipedia page; the Edmonton Oilers getting added to the list of “worst” oil spill disasters in history; seven-time Olympic champion swimmer Katie Ledecky being reclassified as a “humanoid evolution spawned in the bowels of Poseidon”; or, more recently, 49ers kicker Robbie Gould becoming the new “mayor” of Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Perhaps not quite ready to speak on the stunning loss at Lambeau, or those cheeky, tech-savvy 49ers fans, the Green Bay mayor, his honor Eric Genrich, a former IT librarian, did not respond to several requests for comment about the electronic coup staged by 49ers fans. In his defense, the recent online support from San Francisco fans is quite a contrast to just under three years ago when Wikipedia was forced to lock 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s page after fickle fans from the other bay repeatedly changed his middle name to “Crappolo” and his position to “professional garbage can.”
Very few users ever saw those actual Crappolo edits, though. Wiki software bots, armed with a massive database of vandalism terms and patterns, are constantly combing through the site’s 6.4 million English language articles and often within seconds reverting any anomalies, like, in 2015 when New England Patriot Matthew Slater was listed as “killed by Bill Belichick” after he deferred the overtime coin toss. What the bots don’t catch becomes the responsibility of Wikipedia’s community of 43 million contributors, of which, about 100,000 are considered “active” editors: unpaid volunteers like Earl Washburn, a 35-year-old Ottawa native and polling analyst who, in his spare time, edits nearly all of Wikipedia’s 5,000 articles on curling. What the average sports fan usually sees, then, is not the actual goof edit itself but a screen shot of the giggle-inducing, click-bait-style graffiti that was then shared across the social media landscape.
In recent years the practice has grown to become an almost accepted, customary way for clever fans to electronically enhance and amplify the vibes from every epic collapse or monumental win. In a 2014 World Cup loss to Belgium, U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard was absolutely out of his mind, making a record 16 saves and almost single-handedly carrying the Americans beyond the Round of 16. It was a watershed moment for both U.S. men’s soccer and Wikisports vandalism.
Afterward, someone snuck on the Wikipedia entry for “U.S. Secretary of Defense” and switched the name to “Tim Howard.” The edit spread like wildfire on social media. The next day, Howard received a phone call from President Barack Obama and another one from Chuck Hagel, the actual Secretary of Defense who, feeling the pressure from Wikipedia, told Howard “Look, I’ve got this job for a little while longer and I’d like to keep it, but you’re welcome to it when I’m done.” Howard declined — “Way too much pressure for me,” he laughs — but to this day when fans greet him in an airport or at a stadium they still use the unofficial title.
“It’s like the fishing story, you catch a 4-inch fish and by the time the story gets handed down it’s a whale,” says the retired Howard, who is now a part of NBC’s Premier League coverage. “It was a good game and it was special for our team to go toe-to-toe with a world-class Belgium team and nearly win. But after the fact you get all the fun parts, the memes and the Wikipedia Secretary of Defense stuff, and it does create its own beast that becomes part of the folklore.”
The practice of Wikisports vandalism has become so prevalent it would be easier to identify athletes and teams who haven’t been hacked. It seems that while most fans still come to Wikipedia for sports stats and reference, more and more fans, especially while being kept apart during the pandemic, are exploiting Wikipedia’s trusting nature and philanthropic mission. Instead of an open-sourced, community-generated encyclopedia, sports fans have transformed Wikipedia into some kind of de-facto stand-up platform for all their pent-up wit, frustration and trash talk.
And the results are often glorious. Especially for anyone who still appreciates a 9th grader’s sense of humor.
Ted Spiker, a social media expert and chair of the journalism department at the University of Florida, says that 20 years ago the emotion, humor and comradery we gleaned from sports came mostly through personal interactions while sitting around watching games with friends and family. “Now, it just comes together online,” Spiker says. “What happens on Wikipedia is an extension of this great ecosystem of sports trash talk, of high-fiving, of trolling and being mad at your opponents and rivals and celebrating and drowning your tears with you buddies.”
The true evil genius of it all is Wikipedia’s noble, unwavering commitment to its founding credo that anyone is allowed to anonymously edit any page at any time, means that the sports vandalism we can’t help but love, will never be fully eliminated from the site.
Wikipedia may officially label sports vandals as “evil-doers” on its contributions page, but the typical response to the phenomena from several editors we spoke to was a collective mall-cop shoulder shrug. And no matter how feeble or silly, Wikisports vandalism remains a protected form of free speech. Good news for Hamilton’s epic ‘stache. Bad news for Stan Kroenke, who could become the “former” owner of the Rams if his team loses to the Bengals on Sunday. Terrible news for the poor, pedantic Wiki wordsmiths left to clean up the whole mess. As Wikipedian Bill Beutler summed it up, “All things considered, better to vandalize Wikipedia than light a car on fire.”
Nineteen-year Wikipedia veteran Andrew Lih, a journalism professor and author of “The Wikipedia Revolution,” says the site’s free-edit society is “the weird miracle behind the entire thing. One of the most interesting things that sports Wikipedia articles are known for is vandalism. It’s almost like funny noise that we just have to tolerate because at this point we’re stuck with the fact that pretty much every other day there’s an article in some minor sports blog or sports site that says ‘Huh-huh-huh, hey look who ‘owns’ the Celtics.'”
DERIVED FROM WIKI, the Hawaiian word for “quick,” Wikipedia was created in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger while they were developing Nupedia, an online encyclopedia written by bonafide scholars. Wikipedia was launched simultaneously as an experiment, a nonprofit online off-shoot of Nupedia that anyone could contribute to. It took about nine months to catch on but when it did Wikipedia took off (much to the early dismay of college professors and magazine fact-checkers everywhere) eventually absorbing Nupedia on its way to becoming both the greatest repository of knowledge in the history of mankind. By the end of 2021 it was the eighth-most visited website in the U.S. with more than 6 million English-language articles, the equivalent of roughly 3,000 physical volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica.
One of the reasons, perhaps, that the site has not made eradicating sports vandalism a top priority is that Wikipedia has many other far more pressing concerns to deal with. As a nonprofit it is in constant need of cash and volunteers. With just over 132,000 editors left to do the lion’s share of the work, the encyclopedia seems to survive by exploiting the deep sense of public service that drives most editors. And as noble as that community is, it remains woefully lacking in diversity. At last count 95% of all Wikipedians had made fewer than 10 edits while the vast majority of active Wiki editors are white men either in retirement or in their 20s. How do we know this? Well, there are countless Wikipedia pages covering the countless problems with Wikipedia, the biggest one being that as few as 10% of Wikipedians are female. A stat that explains why it’s far more likely for a mediocre male athlete to have an article than it is for a female scientist at the top of her field to get her own page.
Many of these glaring shortcomings simply get overlooked thanks to the gravitas lent to Wikipedia by its unofficial partnership with Google. Launched two years before Wikipedia, Google’s prominent use of the encyclopedia’s vast stores of material have helped bolster the site’s reputation as a reliable source of information. That can become a problem, however, when searching for information on the rock band fronted by Knicks owner James Dolan, the official looking Wikipedia article that comes up lists one of his recordings as “Can’t Make The Knicks Win.”
The current Wikisports vandalism craze was borne from a six-month stretch in 2014. In the first round of the NBA’s Western Conference playoffs that year, Portland guard Damian Lillard hit a series-winning, buzzer-beater 3 to defeat the Houston Rockets and advance the Blazers to the Conference semis for the first time in 14 years. In the pandemonium after the shot Lillard grabbed the PA mic and shouted “RIP CITY!” And long-suffering Portland fans didn’t want to exit the arena and let the euphoria of the moment evaporate. In it’s purest form that’s all Wikisports vandalism is: an electronic extension of those deeply deserving Blazer supporters glued to their seats wanting to extend the good vibes of an epic win just a tiny bit longer.
And so, later that night, Lillard was inserted as the “owner” on the Rockets Wikipedia page, and the next day The Oregonian dutifully shared the screenshot. Seven years later, triumphant athletes being crowned as de-facto “owners” on Wikipedia might be the most trite trick on the Internet, but it’s as much a part of the post-game ritual as Gatorade showers and trophy presentations.
Two months after Lillard took ownership of the Rockets, Howard was named Secretary of Defense. When a press officer alerted Howard to the edit, he remembers wondering if someone would go into Wikipedia and change it back for him or if it would stay like that forever. A little of both, it turns out. “It’s fun being a trend setter,” he says. “I haven’t gotten tired of it, and people still seem to really love it. And now when you look at the edits with Tom Brady or Peyton Manning or whatever, they’re funny and they’re amazing and if it’s a no-harm-no-foul kind of thing and people continue to be playful with it, I think it’s brilliant.”
Caught up in Howard’s moment during the World Cup even Jimmy Wales, the Wiki co-founder himself, tweeted “I do NOT APPROVE of vandalizing Wikipedia for comedic effect. But this is exquisite.”
He hadn’t seen anything yet.
A few months later, then Denver Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders was knocked out of a game against the St. Louis Rams by a vicious hit that left him grotesquely contorted on the field. Before he was even determined to be OK, a Wikipedia vandal had already declared Sanders’ date of death to be Nov. 14, 2014 – the day of the game — and his place of death as “St. Louis.” Joking about a player’s health crosses a line, but later Sanders responded on Twitter saying he’d been “resurrected,” then again with a picture of himself surrounded by women in a crowded bar. If Wikipedia said he was deceased, Sanders replied, “Well … I must be in heaven.”
“Those high-profile moments inspired other people to do more and more copycat crimes,” says Lih. The 2014 summer of Wikimischief was followed by things like Peyton Manning becoming the “mayor” of Omaha, Nebraska. And for a brief stretch in early 2018, after the undefeated University of Central Florida football team tried to claim a share of the national championship, the school’s Wikipage was vandalized once every 97 seconds. In 2019, Toronto Maple Leafs fans started rapid-fire vandalizing coach Mike Babcock’s page just 18 minutes after he was let go by the team. “Unemployed Loser” … “Served fries as the head coach of the McDonald Morons” … “Eats a lot and is the worst coach in Leafs history.” You get the picture.
At first, Hannah Feldbloom, the Wikipedia administrator in charge of Babcock’s page and thousands of other hockey articles, tried to reach out directly to her Wikivandals, privately pleading with them to put down their virtual cans of spray-paint. “It’s a dork move, I know,” says Feldbloom, 23, a grad student at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario. “Sometimes I get really funny responses about how fun I must be at parties. I understand it. Fans are angry and want a voice, but most people just think the vandalism is funny. I can tell you for us it’s all very frustrating, but mostly because it’s like, please be more original.”
Some of the worst Wikivandals that Feldbloom and Washburn (the curling editor) have to deal with are the athletes themselves, or their representatives, who are often shocked (and angry) when they find out they don’t have carte blanche control of their own articles. One prominent Canadian curler approaching middle age tried to roll back her birthday so far she would have been a pre-teen at her first national-level event. With Babcock, every time Feldbloom would fix an edit, three more would show up, each of them from an anonymous IP address. This is the telltale red flag of Wikisports vandalism, what Wikipedians call “drive-by” edits, made by randos instead of registered, traceable, official Wikipedia user accounts. While it’s nothing for Feldbloom to spend 8-10 hours a day volunteering as an unpaid Wikipedian, in this case she found herself and the Wikibots outgunned by one of the most powerful forces in the sports universe: rabid, disgruntled Leafs fans.
With no other option available, Wikipedia locked Babcock’s page. It turns out Wikipedia isn’t exactly as open and egalitarian as you might think. Editors can warn and block vandals from the site. They also have a “rollback” button that in one click reverts the page back to its previous version. On top of that, at any given time 0.5% of all articles (325,000) are in some level of lockdown protection, meaning not just anyone can edit them.
When an NHL coach gets fired, during rivalry week in college football, or, say, in the lead up to the Super Bowl or the Olympics, to prevent a slew of “drive-by” vandalism, those pages will be locked by Wiki administrators. That means to edit those articles you have to be logged in with what Wiki calls an “aged” account, one that has existed for more than seven days or has a certain amount of previous edits.
“That staves off about 90% of the vandalism right there, making articles semi-protected,” says Lih. “Those drive-by editors, those johnnie-come-latelys, I can tell you, nope, they won’t be vandalizing this year’s Super Bowl article.”
OVER ON THE WIKIPEDIA curling pages, Washburn and Hamilton are also preparing for the fight of their lives — not in-line, but online. Hamilton was so excited about getting back to the Games that he left Wisconsin a few days early to throw rocks (curling slang for practice) and begin COVID protocols in Los Angeles before flying to Beijing.
Hamilton has plenty of reason to be excited. He’s featured in a just-released documentary about the U.S. curling team, narrated by his doppelganger, actor Nick Offerman. The sport has become so popular there are Olympic curling fantasy leagues popping up online. And besides a chance at another medal, Hamilton is especially excited about the “absolutely outrageous” curling shoes he’s breaking out on the world stage in Beijing. “I’m so pumped,” he says.
That wasn’t the case leading up to the 2018 Games when the struggling U.S. Olympic curling team agreed to a social media blackout to keep their heads clear of any toxic thoughts. It was especially hard for Hamilton, who is usually the team’s positive-vibes generator. By the end of those Olympics, though, the team was on such a run they dropped their social media ban and Hamilton says all the positive reinforcements that poured in helped propel them to gold.
Ever since, the Wikivandals haven’t been able to lay a finger on Hamilton. Not even the comments listing his height and weight as “dad bod” seem to bug him all that much anymore.
“The fact that people would even bother to make edits is just a testament that I’ve gotten in between those ears and am living rent-free in their heads,” Hamilton says. “The dad bod stuff? They aren’t wrong, I got kind of a belly. But at the end of the day, I won a gold medal, so who cares what these people are writing?”
Now that’s how you properly own someone on Wikipedia.