Thursday, 26 July 2012

Letter from Athens: 26 July 2012

Greece is divided. 
Not in the way you might think, between haves and have-nots, or between the powers that be and those who have to put up with their machinations. But over the ill-judged quip of one of its Olympic hopefuls.

As the world’s top athletes started limbering up in London for their events in the 2012 Games, triple jumper Voula Papachristou opened up her Twitter account and posted a not very funny ‘joke’ about mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus and the increasing number of African migrants in Greece.

Presumably it was meant to make someone laugh – though who would be amused by such a weak attempt at humour is debatable.

They certainly weren’t laughing in the offices of the Greek Olympic Committee when they heard about it. They were so upset by the offending tweet, deemed racist by some, that they expelled her from the Greek Olympic team and sent her packing. Papachristou, they said, had expressed herself in a manner that is contrary to the ideals and values of the Olympics.

In truth, her comment was probably no more offensive that hundreds of so-called jokes bandied about in cafes, bars and even the media every day in Greece.

Whenever someone hits the headlines who is not a Greek national, their country of origin will always be reported regardless of whether it is relevant to the story or not. Kids throw around names in fun that would have many a northern European bleeding heart liberal covering their ears in horror. The terms 'Albanian', 'African' and 'Pakistan' are rarely used as complimentary or purely descriptive adjectives. And Mitsos in the local coffee shop has a whole repertoire of immigrant jokes to keep his pals amused as they battle it out on the backgammon board.

It’s harmless fun, many a Greek will tell you, and not indicative of any deep-seated animosity to foreigners.

They’re right. Up to a point. Despite the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in the current tough times, and the new presence of the extreme-right Golden Dawn party in Parliament, most Greeks are not racists. But casual verbal racism does persist in the
kafenion, in school yards, the workplace and – as illustrated by the case of Voula Papachristou – on social media, where many young Greeks are enthusiastic participants.

The thing is that Papachristou is not Mitsos from the

As an Olympian, she is a figure head, a role model and – like it or not – a representative of her country. When she opened her Twitter account this week and decided to make her wry remark, she failed to consider the weight that her sporting prowess would give her words in the public domain. She also failed to consider that the eyes, ears and translation tools of the world were now on her and her fellow Olympians, and that what might be a harmless throw-away remark in her neighbourhood could be perceived as highly offensive elsewhere.

She tried to put it right with a public apology, but it was not enough for the Greek Olympic Committee. As a result, she has paid a high price for her foolish remark.  She has lost her chance to compete against the world’s best in the biggest sporting event – something she has spent years working towards.

Some say it’s too high a price to pay. That whatever her personal political opinions, her comment was as innocent as it was ill-informed. Others say she has no business expressing such an opinion when she’s representing her nation at a time when its image could do with some positive vibes.

However you see it, Papachristou has learned the hard way a lesson we should all take on board: “
Think before you tweet!

No comments:

Post a Comment