Greek triple-jumper Voula Papachristou has received far more publicity without ever competing in this year's Summer Olympics than she would likely have received if things had gone as planned. Her Twitter gaffes and subsequent expulsion from the Greek Olympic team have been well publicized.
Let me first be very clear that I am not here to excuse, justify or rationalize anything Papachristou said. The question is whether her not her crime was so egregious that she needed to be withheld from Olympic competition.
The original Tweets have since been removed, but Papachristou invoked the ire of many, including Greek Olympic officials when posted retweets and links to Golden Dawn, a purportedly far-right political party which received as much as seven percent of the popular vote in recent elections.
Things got much worse after her attempt at a joke, saying, "With so many Africans in Greece, the West Nile mosquitoes will be getting home food!!!" followed by an overwhelmingly negative response.
Though she apologized profusely on Wednesday, it was too little too late. The Huffington Post and AP reported The Hellenic Olympic Committee saying Papachristou was "placed outside the Olympic team for statements contrary to the values and ideas of the Olympic movement."
Isidoros Kouvelos, head of Greece's Olympic mission, added, "We are not here just to get medals, but to promote the Olympic ideals, to show our character. It's the same as violating fair play."
Kouvelos added that the committee did not contact Papchristou before or after their decision to prevent her from competing.
This is of course an entirely subjective decision. There isn't much doubt in my mind that Papchristou needed to learn a lesson; my question is if the punishment exceeds the crime.
I am not a scholar of Greek politics; however I can say with all of the economic problems going on in Europe and Greece in particular, it is not surprising that extremist elements have made some headway. With almost no personal knowledge of Golden Dawn, it would be premature for me to comment on whether or not the party is simply ultra-conservative, or rather has elements of Neo-Nazism or racism as is sometimes suggested.
It is also worth noting that while Papchristou's tweets were referencing or even encouraging of Golden Dawn, it doesn't seem she was advocating anything violent or illegal. Of course the real uproar came after her attempted joke about mosquitos.
This joke was clearly in very bad taste and certainly made fun of the fact that there are both West Nile virus and Africans in Greece...but as this has uniformly been condemned as a "racist" tweet, I'm failing to understand how that applies.
Because Golden Dawn has reportedly taken an anti-immigrant stance, we might infer that this joke may be a veiled criticism of Greece's immigration policy; however, where does race enter into it? Africans from the "home" of the West Nile virus may very well be black but that doesn't seem to have anything to do with Papachristou's attempt at a joke.
This seems like the kind of tasteless humor we might have heard out of the mouth of BIll Maher, and it is completely understandable that some people would be offended by pouring gas on the fire of a difficult situation, whether it is the unpleasantries of the disease itself or the difficulties surrounding Greece's current political unrest.
There are certainly already cries regarding infringement upon free speech. I do feel that Olympic athletes are representatives of their countries and in that sense, the overseeing authorities have a right to intervene if an athlete is running around behaving like say, Ted Nugent or Natalie Maines.
That being said, why did she have to be removed from competition, as opposed to a severe reprimand? As The Huffington Post reports, her coach and her sports club were among those who felt the punishment was too harsh. Of course these are people who know her personally but they are not alone, as indicated by comments on her Facebook page and articles about the incident.
Even Greece's political parties do not agree. While coalition government's Democratic Left made a harsh and seemingly punitive demand for her to be expelled for her racist humor and have to watch the Olympics on TV, the Socialists had a different take:
"Issues touching on human dignity should not be treated lightly. ... We hope that Ms. Papachristou has, though belatedly, realized her mistake and her public apology is sincere."
At 23 years old, Papachristou is not so different from many of us, young or old, in forgetting that social media is an instant bullhorn to the rest of the world, not to mention how many of us did foolish things at that age...and occasionally, still do.
How offensive her statements were is subject to debate. Few of us could endorse some of the things Golden Dawn is accused of; however they also seem to have support from at least 7% of Greek voters. Beyond that, as far as her West Nile joke, I can understand the concern about her words being in poor taste and obnoxious, but it seems to be a stretch to label them as racist.
She did immediately apologize for what she said and I believe we have to at least try and take people at their word. For now, she has trained for years for this opportunity and now will have to miss out on what is, for many, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
It seems as if a reprimand and disciplinary action is entirely appropriate and the Hellenic Olympic Committee has already taken action to ban further social media discussion by athletes during the Olympics regarding any subjects other than those related to their athletic activities. Unfortunately, it seems Papachristou will not be given a second chance.
I hope that in the interest of being politically correct the committee hasn't gone too far and that the resentment from having her Olympic opportunity revoked will not prevent Papachristou from fully understanding her mistake.
-- Craig Berlin
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