Who will win the racial-sensitivity gold medal?
First, some behavior on the part of athletes is clearly out of bounds. After Swiss footballer Michel Morganella’s team lost to South Korea, he said on Twitter that his opponents could “go burn” and were a “bunch of mongoloids.” That’s hardly sporting behavior, and he was sent home for insulting the dignity of the Korean team. Beyond that, it was just offensive speech.
And sometimes it’s the critics who are clearly out of line. NBC was deluged with criticism because it ran an ad that offended fans of gold-medal-winning U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas, who is black. NBC commentator Bob Costas had just finished a commentary in which he said that “much of America has fallen in love with Gabby Douglas” when a gymnastics-themed commercial appeared promoting NBC’s comedy Animal Practice. It featured a small, grinning monkey doing gymnastic tricks.
Because African Americans have sometimes been compared to simians by people trying to dehumanize them, many viewers complained the ad was racist. NBC responded with an apology and an explanation that the ad was placed in the lineup of commercials long before Douglas won her medal. That should end that story.
Then there are the cases in the middle. Greek triple-jump champion Voula Papachristou was expelled from her country’s Olympic team last week after she tweeted a tasteless joke. In a reference to a recent outbreak of West Nile virus in Greece, she said that with so many Africans living in Greece, the mosquitoes carrying the virus would be eating “homemade food.” She was promptly booted for making racist comments “contrary to the values and ideas of the Olympics movement.”
I agree that her attempt at humor was stupid, insensitive, and silly. But racist? Racism means a belief in the superiority of one race over another. I don’t think Papachristou’s tweet clears that hurdle.
It is true that Papachristou was also guilty of making comments supportive of Golden Dawn, an anti-immigrant party whose followers have been involved in ugly confrontations on Greek streets. But while I am not a fan of Golden Dawn, it is a legal party that won 7 percent of the vote in the last Greek election and has 18 members seated in the Greek parliament.
Papachristou has been highly apologetic for her tasteless tweet, but her sporting career still lies in ashes. As Canada’s Calgary Herald pointed out, the decision to oust her “is ironic considering that Greece is both the birthplace of democracy and [the birthplace of] the Olympics. The only kind of speech that needs protection is offensive speech. You’d think Greece would understand that.”
Then there is the case of Nadja Drygalla, a rower who was pressured to leave the German Olympic team last Friday after a TV station reported that her boyfriend was Michael Fischer, who had been a candidate for the far-right National Democratic party in a regional election last year. Some also claimed Fischer had been involved in disruptive protests against immigrants.
Drygalla vehemently denied harboring any extremist views. But the news report prompted Michael Vesper, chief of the German Olympic Sports Confederation, to call her in for a long talk.
“She explained the matter from her point of view,” Vesper told journalists. “I made the problem clear to her.” According to Vesper, the rower reaffirmed her allegiance to the Olympic Charter, and he acknowledged, “I have no doubt that she not only stands upon the foundation of the German constitution but also on that of the Olympic values.” But then Drygalla announced she was “voluntarily” leaving the Olympics, and Vesper accepted her “choice.”
Drygalla has since told the German news agency DPA that her boyfriend “hasn’t been a member of the NPD since May and has distanced himself from the whole thing.” She emphasized that “I made it clear to him in many discussions that I don’t share his views and don’t back them. We didn’t have a very happy relationship when all that was going on.”
If she’s telling the truth, to what office does she apply to restore her reputation? The treatment of Drygalla recalls the classic “guilt by association” tactics that liberals usually rail against when the victims are Communists. The National Democratic party may be odious (government officials have labeled it anti-Semitic), but it is a legal entity with elected members in two state parliaments.