I had promised to do a post about Greece and the social-political consequences of the crisis. Then everything got really busy and yesterday that happened. Long story short, Voula Papachristou will not compete in the London 2012 due to a racist tweet, which, as unfortunate as it may be for the athlete herself, offer the premises for a very interesting discussion. To begin with, my feelings on matter are quite strong. I condemn all forms of discrimination, especially tasteless jokes, not only because they are hurtful, but also because they undermine meaningful dialogue on crucial social issues.
Many people may disagree with me, but yes, she is a professional athlete. She doesn’t play little league during the weekends just for the fun of it. She signs contracts and people invest money on her career. Thus, as in every profession, she has certain responsibilities and obligations. One of them is to align her words with the official stance of her team/sponsor and when her private opinions differ, to keep quite and discuss it with her close friends and family. Otherwise, she should have parted ways with the team and the sponsors.
In addition, she is a representative of the Olympic Spirit. Here I am not talking about Coca-Cola or McDonald’s. Here I am talking about the volunteers who put great effort to make the Olympics happen, other athletes who compete to bring glory to themselves and their countries and sports fans who participate in the festivities by buying the tickets and boosting the ratings (and you can call all of these people delusional consumers if you please). Furthermore, she represents me and every other Greek as she is wearing the colours of my country and everything she says can be easily blown out of proportions and turn into a racist circus on its own.
Many interesting comments have been posted on-line on the topic. Many argue that such a reaction by the Greek Olympic Committee was violating the athlete’s right to freedom of speech. Others consider it a hypocritical reaction and believe that Papachristou became the scapegoat of left-wing parties. Many point their fingers at some members of the Greek Olympic Committee who have been involved in political scandals. Finally, there are those who question all this sensitivity expressed by the Olympic Committee on the topic given their limited reactions in previous years towards other issues (with more notable the exclusion of women).
Firstly, it is an intellectual mistake to associate different issues with the reaction to a particular event. The Greek Olympic Committee, its current members included, decided against being dragged into a snake pit and allow the team and by extension the country to be accused racism. Furthermore, the Olympics are organised by the International Olympics Committee that is not a political organisation and requests political views to be kept private. At the same time, it demands that all athletes show respect to each other and fights against discrimination. If somebody wants to participate in the Games it is not irrational to assume that they need to comply with their rules. After all, participating in the Games is a personal choice of the athlete but once decided upon, it is compulsory to comply with the rules. It is also unfair to discuss the IOC’s previous decisions to allow countries with no female participation to compete. For an athlete to compete, they need to have a performance that doesn’t fall too below the Committee’s standards. There have been many instances where the Committee allows athletes, including women who don’t meet these standards to compete. Especially when it comes to the delicate issue of Saudi Arabia, the way they handled it should be praised. It is very difficult to find ways to embrace such a colorful texture of cultures, faiths and costumes, as well as delicate political situations and sports requirements. Therefore, the least that the participating countries and athletes can do respect the rules and regulations.
Finally, the person who is to blame the most is the athlete and after her, her coach, team, family and friends. The twitter account was not hers and only hers. It was a sponsored account. That means that she didn’t just represent herself but she also represented the sponsor who provided her with money and equipment to continue her training to the highest standards. Once again, having a sponsor is not compulsory but it comes with responsibilities. These responsibilities she didn’t realise and nobody in her immediate circle considered necessary to explain to her. There could have been an easy way to avoid the whole situation: the day her sponsor agreed for the company’s logo to appear in her account’s background, her coach and team could have sent her to one of major communications/PR agencies in Athens for a one-day seminar on social media, their advantages and their dangers. Furthermore, at any point somebody could have stepped in and warned her that she shouldn’t be posting comments unrelated to her sporting activities on-line. She was in the limelight, and it is the eve of an international event that could have been the highlight of her career. However, it becomes apparent that in Greece many are still struggling to understand that in social media the private is very often interwoven with the public.
As for the freedom of speech argument, nobody prevented her from expressing her opinion among her friends or even publicly. She could have created an account with a nickname not associated with her personal brand (because her name IS her brand) where she would be able to express any opinion she liked. Many people have blogs, twitter and facebook accounts where they use a nickname or they abbreviate their name to separate their person views from their professional life. There is nothing wrong with that, especially if the nature of the person’s profession is such that requires them to maintain a certain public image. In other words, if you are a professional athlete that enjoys retweeting posts of the Golden Dawn (the Greek far-right party that has been accused of physically immigrates) and making racist jokes, then it going by a different name could prove to be a wise choice to protect your team and your status, as a person associated with the Olympics that firmly opposes racism. So, talking about freedom of speech in a general way doesn’t take into account the specific circumstances of this athlete.
Going back now to the original topic of racism in Greece, I would only like to address one issue. The discussion on racism is often highly polarised, without meaningful arguments or any desire to listen to the interlocutor. This can only lead to a terrible management of the present situation. The left will keep insisting that nothing is wrong and the right will be further radicalized and more incidents of violence against immigrants will take place. There needs to be an in-depth conversation between all interested parties (European institutions and country representatives) on the pressure that Mediterranean countries experience due to illegal immigration. However, only soberly and education among the population and the politicians will bring the desired results. Otherwise, events far more unpleasant than a few unsettling tweets will take place in parts of the world were democracy should have be cornerstone of the state, not the goal.