ATHENS — “With so many Africans in Greece... the West Nile mosquitoes will at least eat homemade food!!!”
A tasteless, and yes, racist tweet. But does the 140-character message by Greece’s star triple jumper Voula Papachristou seriously warrant an athlete’s first-ever expulsion from the Olympics for social media use?
Greece’s Olympic Committee reckons it does. In fact, it said in a strictly worded statement issued Wednesday, that racial slur, no less on the eve of the London kickoff of the world’s biggest sporting extravaganza, is “contrary to the values and ideas of the Olympic movement.”
The 23-year-old, who was scheduled to leave later this week for her first Olympics competition, has been quick to apologize. In at least three different posts and an official statement issued in both Greek and English, Papachristou has billed her message an “unfortunate and tasteless joke” — one which she claimed she picked up from another social media platform, Facebook.
“I never wanted to offend anyone,” the athlete said. “My dream is connected to the Olympic Games and I could not possibly participate if I did not respect their values,” her message screen reads on Facebook and Twitter today.
The sudden show of remorse, though, doesn’t appear to be working — not at least for legions of Greeks who view Papachristou’s expulsion as a punch to their national pride, already battered and bruised by an extreme economic recession ripping through this sun-kissed nation.
Indeed, within hours of the Hellenic Olympic Committees decision, thousands of fans — and critics — entered Papachristou’s Facebook page to lambaste the athlete for the tacky tripe she posted on Monday. Samsung, a major sponsor of the Olympics, instantly stripped a slick and splashy advert superimposed on the jumper’s page ahead of the London Games. And the government, concerned about rising crime, poverty and extremism feeding from the recession, harrumphed about the saga, saying the athlete’s expulsion would afford her ample time to watch the Olympics on television and “post as many vile jokes as she wants through social media.”
A tad too trenchant? Perhaps. But it wasn’t the first time Papachristou reposted racial slur or showed sympathy for far-right policies promoted by Chryssi Avgi (Golden Dawn), a party of reactionary supremacists whose high-octane war on immigration won them 7 percent of the vote in recent elections, sending them to Parliament for the first time since democracy was restored here in 1974.
In recent months, the athlete had posted several videos promoting the views of the neo-Nazi party, plus particular fondness for a group member who punched up a female lawmaker during a heated television debate.
Despite public reaction to her racial tweet on Monday, the triple jumper stood by her comments a day later blaring "That's how I am. I laugh. I am not a CD to get stuck!!! And if I make mistakes, I don't press the replay! I press Play and move on!!!"
With anti-immigration sentiment on the rise across Europe, scores of Greeks and Europeans came to her defense. A group titled “We want Voula Papachristou in London” was created within minutes of her expulsion. “Since when is clever humor a crime?” one fan posted as pundits took jabs at the morality of the Olympic movement’s decision.
“Values outside the Olympic movement?” wrote an American blogger. “So if she had sold her Twitter account to the highest bidder, went on a McDonald’s diet or decided to sit out the Games rather than face a member of a different religion, she’d be cool?
“Ban her if you want, Greece, but don’t pin it on the questionable values of the Olympic movement.”
Papachristou’s trainer has appealed to the Greek Olympic Committee to reconsider.
Whatever the outcome — there probably won’t be any repealing of the landmark decision — the saga is heartbreaking.
Over the winter, I watched how Papachristou and other Greek athletes struggled to make their way to London. They trained around giant buckets and under the leaky roof of a once-sleek sporting arena that was prepared in 2004 to celebrate the Olympics’ homecoming here, but is now rotting because of the parlous financial crisis. There was no heat or hot water. The jumpers’ pit was full of weeds and coaches hadn’t been paid in over 10 months.
“Any success these days by any Greek athlete,” I recall the father of one athlete, Kyriakos Chondrokoukis, telling me at the time, “marks a mythical feat, a Herculean labor.”
Papachristou clearly didn’t realize that.
“Big mistake,” I wrote on her Facebook page. “Biggest moment lost.”