Photo Credit: Matt Dunham/AP Photo
The Olympics aren’t just about outstanding athletic achievement. The Games are about demonstrating impeccable character and ethics befitting one’s nation. That’s the message decision makers on the Hellenic Olympic Committee sent to Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou when they kicked her off the team Wednesday for her dubious posts on Twitter denigrating African immigrants and showing support for a far-right political party.
The Hellenic Olympic Committee said Papachristou is "placed outside the Olympic team for statements contrary to the values and ideas of the Olympic movement."
Isidoros Kouvelos, the head of Greece's Olympic mission, said on Greek TV, "It's the same as violating fair play. We are not here just to get medals, but to promote the Olympic ideals, to show our character." He added that the Hellenic Olympic Committee did not contact Papachristou either before or after issuing the statement excluding her from the games.
Papachristou's Twitter account contained a number of retweets and links to Web sites and videos promoting the views of Golden Dawn, an extreme right party that was once on the fringes, but entered the Greek Parliament in two recent elections by grabbing a small percentage of the vote. Sunday, remarking on the widely reported appearance of virus-carrying mosquitoes in Athens, Papachristou wrote: "With so many Africans in Greece, the West Nile mosquitoes will be getting home food!!!" It didn’t go over well, provoking an avalanche of negative feedback by mid-week.
She removed the offending tweets and apologized heartily on Twitter but it was too late, and the decision to remove her was nonnegotiable.
Prior to the era of social media, Papachristou would at this moment be preparing to show the world the athletic talent she’d been training and honing dozens of hours a week for years. And maybe that’s all some Greek fans—and fans worldwide—want from Olympic competitors. Is it wrong to judge an athlete for her ethics when the games are about sport?
Indeed, support for the athlete rolled in online and off. Among her defenders was her Bulgarian coach, Georgi Pomaski, who said that "she did something childish… but it is a little harsh for a kid we are trying to educate.” A fair point. Chalk this up to among the most severe of life’s lessons.
The fact is, Papachristou was judged not just for her political and social beliefs, but for the way she chose to express them. Even the most novice student of social media 101 would know that the Internet is public, and can never be erased. (Since the incident, Greece has barred its athletes from expressing personal beliefs unrelated to the Games on social media.) She’d have been able to hold fast to her views and compete in the games, too, had she not violated this obvious rule alone.
And then of course there is the matter of the Greeks’ statement on the importance of the games beyond just a demonstration of supreme talent on the field—particularly important for a country dealing with national embarrassment over its woeful economic and political struggles. The Olympics’ many important dramas also play out in the realms of sportsmanship, character, and role modeling; indeed, every four years, these seem to be the most compelling of the stories that emerge.
So, harsh as the decision to ban Papachristou may be, it’s for those reasons she was no longer the right candidate for the job.