Greek Triple jumper Voula Papachristou has been expelled from Greece’s Olympic team this week for mocking African immigrants and expressing support on Twitter for the far-right Golden Dawn party. Despite the obnoxious content of these views for many of us, I believe that the move raises serious free speech concerns.
Papachristou was removed from the team because her tweets were viewed as “plac[ing her] outside the Olympic team for statements contrary to the values and ideas of the Olympic movement.”
Papachristou is responsible for several retweets and postings of YouTube videos promoting the views of Golden Dawn, which is viewed as a virtually fascist organization by critics. The most serious matter however came with a tweet on a story of the appearance of Nile-virus-carrying mosquitoes in Athens. Papachristou wrote: “With so many Africans in Greece, the West Nile mosquitoes will be getting home food!!!” The tweet produced a firestorm of criticism.
She was also criticized for several of her retweets were original tweets by Ilias Kasidiaris, the Golden Dawn spokesman who recently struck a female Communist MP in the face and threw water at another female MP during a TV talk show. Papachristou tweeted to Kassidiaris on his name day, last Friday, “Many happy years, be always strong and true!!!”
She posted apologetic messages on Twitter and Facebook, stating “I would like to express my heartfelt apologies for the unfortunate and tasteless joke I published on my personal Twitter account. I am very sorry and ashamed for the negative responses I triggered, since I never wanted to offend anyone, or to encroach human rights. My dream is connected to the Olympic Games and I could not possibly participate if I did not respect their values. Therefore, I could never believe in discrimination between human beings and races. I would like to apologize to all my friends and fellow athletes, who I may have insulted or shamed, the National Team, as well as the people and companies who support my athletic career. Finally, I would like to apologize to my coach and my family.”
This is not the first time the games have faced such a controversy. Indeed, these tweets are minor when compared to the protest of African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Games. Notably, the U.S. opposed the expulsion of the athletes from the games but yielded when the entire U.S. team was threatened with expulsion. I thought the protest in 1968 was inappropriate and deserving of punishment given the tradition and rules of the international games regarding political statements at the competition. In this case, however, Papachristou engaged an inappropriate joke and associated with an controversial party before the start of the games.
The decision to remove the athlete in my view is a core violation of free speech. The political association criticism is particularly worrisome as a cited basis for the action. Many athletes have historically been connected to political parties or movements from black liberation to environmental causes. This appears a case of selective prosecution. Likewise, the joke was tasteless and obnoxious. However, she apologized for it. Moreover, she is allowed to hold anti-immigration views. I agree that she is given an honor to represent a nation and can be expected to refrain from such comments during her participation. However, the impression is that it is the holding of these views and not necessarily the timing that prompted such action. If Papachristou had made such jokes last year, would it still be a basis to bar her from the team? While she insists it was a joke, the controversy does raise the question of whether a racist should be barred due to his or her views. In my view, they should not be barred though they can be expected to refrain from such comments while on the team representing a nation. There are many athletes with known anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim or misogynistic views that are common to their countries. They are not barred from competition. If we start to bar athletes on unacceptable views, where to we draw the line? I understand the uproar and I believe that Papachristou was rightfully forced to apologize because she is representing Greece. However, I am disturbed by the outcry over her political views and the demand for her removal.
What do you think?