When Curtis McDowald drew his Ã©pÃ©e at his first Olympics, he had already made history. There would be the hard-fought bouts to place him 24th overall, and later, 9th in the team event, where he and two teammates wore pink face masks to protest another teammate accused of sexual assault. But the moment the Jamaica, Queens native stepped onto the piste, he did so with CryptoPunk #9362 on all of his social media profiles, becoming the first Olympian to bring the iconic NFTs to the greatest stage in the world.
#Olympunksâwhich McDowald says is not a protest, but a demonstration of who he is and what heâs aboutâbegan when Joshua Doner, CEO of virtual NFT gallery platform Mynt.La, met McDowald through their mutual friend Spencer. Doner asked him if heâd set his profile picture to a CryptoPunk as an experiment in social capital during his Olympics run.
McDowald immediately understood. He made the change, and within hours, his Twitter followers soaredâGary Vaynerchuk among his new captive audience.
For McDowald, a CryptoPunk goes beyond pure novelty; it is digital identity. The act of wearing one is an expression of self, and brand, when many athletes at the Games have few avenues for self-promotion.
âFencing, like many other Olympic sports, is really an amateur sport. And there arenât many ways to bring value to your brand,â McDowald told ONE37pm.
He is referring to Rule 40 of the International Olympic Committeeâs Charter, which restricts athletes from using their name, image or likeness in Olympic-branded advertising right before and during competition. Despite looser regulations in Tokyo, the by-law remains controversial, and athletes found violating the rule may still face punishment as harsh as being stripped of their medals.
McDowald, who removed even the cloth tags from his steel fencing mask to hide the name of his equipment sponsor, never worried that heâd broken the rule with Punk #9362. âYouâre afraid of what you donât understand,â he said. âWhat we were able to do with Josh is so above the IOC and their scope of thinkingâthis was a way to be âsponsoredâ by Joshâs NFT and his community. That had never been done before.â
âCurtis couldnât have taken any other brand with him. But he could point to his Punk and say, âhey, actually, thatâs my identity.â And thatâs a powerful thing,â Doner added.
The six Olympiansâamong them, sabre fencer Dagmara âDagaâ Wozniakâbegan sporting CryptoPunks after Doner matched them with Punk owners who answered an open call on Twitter. Punk #1629 had just finished a stint beside the Museum of Modern Art when its owner, AI collaborative artist Claire Silver, offered to lend it to Wozniak.
Days later, Silver cheered into an online stream as Wozniak battled her opponent in her third Olympic Games.
âShe was injured twice, and just fought straight through it. And I love that tenacity,â Silver said. âItâs this new generation of prime athletes on the cutting edge of their fields. And I feel the same way about Punks, with regard to digital identity and NFTs.â
The overlap between expensive jpegs and Olympic fencers was unexpected, but far from unfathomable. For athletes like McDowald and Wozniak who compete in a sport where fancy salaries are all but satire, digital identity can be critical to oneâs livelihood.
âIf you do anything besides train and compete, people will tell you you’re distracting yourself,â McDowald said. âBut the reality is that this allows me to continue what I’m doing. Me building my brand and having support from a very active community makes it much easier for me to compete.â
According to McDowald, the network effects of #Olympunks also stood in contrast to a deeper issue in traditional Olympics coverage. Despite the hashtag trending on Crypto Twitter, and announcements about each of the six fencerâs upcoming bouts, would-be viewers struggled to find broadcasts of the athletes. McDowald himself was no exception.
âWhen I wanted to watch my teammates,â McDowald said, âI actually called my friend and they FaceTimed meâthatâs how I was able to watch the matches.â He added, âThis is the time where Iâm going to have the biggest platform and the most marketability, and this is the hardest time for people to watch. Itâs just kind of crazy.â
Now that Olympic fencing has ended, McDowald is back home in New York, where he resumes his 90-minute subway commute from Queens to Fencerâs Club in Midtown, Manhattan. But his Twitter feed remains an ode to sport and culture, himself included. There are his photos with fellow Olympians Kevin Durant, an investor in OpenSea who dabbles in basketball, and Slovenian hooper Luka DonÄiÄ. A GQ profile featuring a shirtless McDowald calls him an âelectric presenceâ turning the fencing world on its head. And then there are the tweets and retweets about the various CryptoPunks who went to Tokyoâlots of them.
Perhaps most striking of all is his newest profile picture from today, which features the same Punk #9362, this time wearing a pink face mask.
Itâs a lot to take in for the average Twitter user, or even the fencing fanatic, but if you can make it to his first tweet from April 14, it all starts to make sense. It reads, âYou know us as athletes. Weâre so much more. We are artists, activists, dreamers, and doers.â
âAnd we are unstoppable.â