Olympic fame put Suni Lee in minefield of business, bullying

Clare Grant/Courier Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK
Suni Lee has one of the most valuable social media presences of any female athlete in the country, but she has to keep a distance from her social media accounts.

NEW YORK — Suni Lee had to make a business decision. 

After winning gold for the U.S. at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics at 18 years old, the gymnast’s life and reputation were bound to change forever. She became the next gymnastics celebrity and built an Instagram following of over 1.6 million.

Oh, and she earned the second-largest NIL valuation of any women’s college athlete at $1.3 million when she competed at Auburn University, per On3, second only to LSU gymnast Livvy Dunne in 2023. 

Her meteoric rise to fame earned her an appearance on Dancing With the Stars three years ago and endorsement deals with household brands like Playstation, Gatorade, Target and Amazon, which have been primarily channeled on her Instagram page.

But through all the deals, she stays off of her social media, choosing to monetize her brand from a distance.

“I try to stay off of social media as much as possible,” Lee said last week at the U.S. Olympics Media Summit. “A lot of my posts, I’ll send to my manager and they’ll post it for me.” 

For Lee, her gold medal and subsequent fame came with the harsh other side of a public following. She says she faced online harassment and bullying that has nearly driven her off of her own social platforms since 2021. 

“My problem is that once I get on,” she said, “I’m going to scroll and I’m going to look my name up and I’m going to see what everyone has to say, because I just care about what people think about me too much.” 

It began the moment she was awarded gold for the individual all-around in Tokyo. To many, she became a silver lining to the U.S.’s second-place performance to Russia after Simone Biles withdrew from the competition for tend to her mental health.

But to some, Lee’s win evoked anger, she says, and she was quickly berated with claims that she “didn’t deserve to win.” And those insults haven’t stopped. 

“I see people saying that every single day and I see people comparing me to other athletes every single day and that’s part of the reason I stay off social media,” she said. “Because, in my head, I already don’t think that I should have won, so when you see it from other people, and that many people saying that I suck and all this stuff, it’s just hard mentally.”

Lee doesn’t look at her gold medal, as she prefers to keep it locked up in a safe to avoid those thoughts of self doubt. 

But the medal was just the beginning of what drew the ire of Lee’s detractors. In early 2023, Lee was diagnosed with an incurable kidney condition that ended her college career at Auburn. Over the course of the next year, she says she retained 45 lbs in water weight, couldn’t bend her legs or squeeze her fingers. 

Lee says the condition caused her to experience constant pain, nausea and lightheadedness, putting her chances at competing for the 2024 Paris Olympics in jeopardy. She even says her doctor advised against making a comeback.

She eventually got the issue under control via medication and is positioned to return to the U.S. lineup in Paris. 

But her return from the illness only drew more harassment online. 

“A lot of people on social media were just like ‘Oh, why are we influencing this? Why are we supporting her? Because she has this and that,” Lee said. “It’s been hard. My family and my managers were like, ‘You shouldn’t read that. You’re the one who goes to the doctors appointments. You’re the one who deals with it. You know your body and you know what you can and you can’t do.’”

Despite being driven off of her own Instagram page, Lee has managed to monetize it with a series of sponsorships. This year alone, she has endorsed brands like Marriott Bonvoy, American Classic, Ulta Beauty, GK Elite and Amazon Fashion through posts on her Instagram page — and it’s not even May yet. 

She will look to add to her fame and brand value while doing her best to ignore the online comments at the Paris Olympics, as she looks to reclaim her spot on the U.S. national team and prove that her gold medal in 2021 was no fluke. 

She is on track to do just that so far, having posted the highest score the American Classic last week, with a 14.300, to win the balance beam title.

Next up is the U.S. Classic, set for 17-18 May in Hartford, Connecticut. That event will be the final opportunity to qualify to the U.S. nationals.

“I decided I wanted to come back because I really was only getting better and I love gymnastics,” Lee said. “I was not ready to be done and I wanted to prove to myself that I could be better than I was at the last Olympics.”