How Curtis McDowald and USA Fencing Took "CryptoPunks" to the Tokyo Olympics

6 members of the U.S. Fencing Team used the NFTs as their digital avatars.

Curtis McDowald Image Credit: Getty Images / Graphic by Mikey Caloca (ONE37pm)

When Curtis McDowald drew his épée 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.

#Olympunks—which McDowald says is not a protest, but a demonstration of who he is and what he’s about—began when Joshua Doner, CEO of virtual NFT gallery platform Mynt.La, met McDowald through their mutual friend Spencer. Doner asked him if he’d 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 soared—Gary 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.

“Fencing, like many other Olympic sports, is really an amateur sport. And there aren’t many ways to bring value to your brand,” McDowald told ONE37pm.

He is referring to Rule 40 of the International Olympic Committee’s 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 he’d broken the rule with Punk #9362. “You’re afraid of what you don’t understand,” he said. “What we were able to do with Josh is so above the IOC and their scope of thinking—this was a way to be ‘sponsored’ by Josh’s NFT and his community. That had never been done before.”

“Curtis couldn’t have taken any other brand with him. But he could point to his Punk and say, ‘hey, actually, that’s my identity.’ And that’s a powerful thing,” Doner added.

The six Olympians—among them, sabre fencer Dagmara “Daga” Wozniak—began 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.

“She was injured twice, and just fought straight through it. And I love that tenacity,” Silver said. “It’s 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.”

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 one’s livelihood.

“If you do anything besides train and compete, people will tell you you're distracting yourself,” McDowald said. “But 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.”

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 fencer’s upcoming bouts, would-be viewers struggled to find broadcasts of the athletes. McDowald himself was no exception.

“When I wanted to watch my teammates,” McDowald said, “I actually called my friend and they FaceTimed me—that’s how I was able to watch the matches.” He added, “This is the time where I’m going to have the biggest platform and the most marketability, and this is the hardest time for people to watch. It’s just kind of crazy.”

Now that Olympic fencing has ended, McDowald is back home in New York, where he resumes his 90-minute subway commute from Queens to Fencer’s 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 Dončić. A GQ profile featuring a shirtless McDowald calls him an “electric presence” turning the fencing world on its head. And then there are the tweets and retweets about the various CryptoPunks who went to Tokyo—lots 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.

It’s 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, “You know us as athletes. We’re so much more. We are artists, activists, dreamers, and doers.”

“And we are unstoppable.”

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