Voula Papachristou, an Olympic triathlon gold-medallist hopeful may have thought that it would be witty to relate the cases of West Nile virus in Greece, to the presence of African immigrants in that country. This would explain why she "tweeted" the following comment on Twitter: "With so many Africans in Greece, at least the mosquitoes of the Western Nile will be eating at home." What our mindless little tweety bird did not realise, is that the said virus is transmitted by birds, bitten by mosquitoes. And silly little birds are also responsible for the transmission of other viruses, such as that of racism. If we were to continue this line of reasoning further, we would posit that birds such as budgerigars can either be taught to fly or sing. Since the tweet of our pernicious song-bird is particularly viral, perhaps she should stick to what she knows, running, and leave social commentary to those who have a deeper understanding of the human condition than one hand-reared in the rarified atmosphere of the gilded cage that is the sphere of Greek Olympic athletics.
As it transpires, owing to her racist and insensitive commentary, Voula will not be able to 'fly,' as she has been dropped from the Greek Olympic Team that is to compete in the London Games. This, one would think, is proper and right. After all, was not our own Stephanie Rice publicly censured for her own inauspicious and now notorious tweet: "Suck on that faggots," upon the victory of her particular team over the South Africans? Similarly, Voula has since apologized for her unfortunate outburst, and we are compelled to accept that she has appreciated the magnitude of her blunder and is responsible enough to accept the consequences of same.
In 'say whatever you want with impunity and with total disregard for anyone else's feelings' Greece however, Voula's exclusion from the Team has met with a storm of protest and indignation, particularly from the males of the species. After all, as athletes go, Voula's physical appearance is amply possessed of such symmetry and harmony as would cause many a male to drool and eagerly agree with whatever vacuous tweets emanate from her beak. Had Voula the features of old-time Greek film actress Georgia Vasileiadou, it would be questionable whether she would elicit so much sympathy and such indignation, especially on the various social media that portray her scantily clad, sensuously draping herself within the folds of the Greek flag. So much for rational argument.
Physical appeal aside, what is of vast concern is the deeply disquieting manner in which Voula Papachristou, who is said to be a supporter of the extremist Xrysi Avgi political party, is being portrayed by various prominent Greeks, comedian Hary Klynn among them, as principled stand against African immigration. According to these persons, Voula's exclusion from the London Games is political correctness gone horribly wrong and marks the apogee of hypocrisy, highlighting the supposed hold 'left-wing' ideologies have over the Modern Greek social discourse, who allegedly stifle opposing schools of thought. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
It is the right of every citizen of a state to question government policies and engage in debate as to their efficacy. Had Voula's tweet been something akin to: "What is the government doing to combat illegal immigration?" then such a remark would be no more innocuous than the interminable Australian parliamentary debates as to the efficacy of policy (if indeed such exists) on asylum seekers. That is, though her point of view may be diametrically opposed to that of others, it is a point of view that can and should be posited, as a private individual, regardless of what we think of the wisdom a celebrity figure such as an elite athlete charged with the responsibility of representing her country in an international field, entering such a debate in a public forum. Voula, sadly, did not ask such a question. In her misguided employment of smug sarcasm, she denigrated a minority group, that of West African immigrants to Greece, reducing it to the status of a disease. This is not informed debate and she was certainly not "brave enough to make such a joke," as some commentators implausibly argue. This is pure bigotry at its most crass and Neanderthal and this is not the behaviour that we would expect to come from a member of the "Hellenic race," which if the national myth and stereotype is to be believed, abounds in vast, undiluted quantities of «φιλοξενία» and «φιλότιμο.»
While in the case of a private individual, we may either scorn and indignantly condemn a vile and cowardly vilification of a section of modern Greek society or, alternatively, share her bias and find her bluster amusing, in the case of Voula, we are obliged to remember one important factor: Voula Papachristou, along with her colleagues, as Olympic athletes, are charged with the honour and the responsibility of representing the country of Greece in the peak international sporting event of the world. As such, they are the face of Greece, meaning that they represent the people of Greece. This in turn encompasses ethnic Greeks, along with the significant other migrant groups who now reside in that country and contribute in their own way to the formulation of that society. By publicly reducing one of those groups to a virus and denigrating them in the process, Voula is clearly signifying that she does not wish to represent Greek society in its entirety. Therefore, she is voluntarily divesting herself of her assumed responsibility to represent Greece to the world. Consequently, any desire for participation she may have as a representative of Greece in the Olympic Games is illogical and untenable and it is proper and right to exclude her from such participation.
It is truly about time that participants in the Greek public discourse grew up. Granted, Voula's bigoted and ill advised foray into the world of public policy can be perceived as an unfortunate attempt at humour by someone totally unqualified to provide considered social commentary. Yet public figures must have some type of awareness of the importance of the positions they hold and the ancillary sensitivity to possible divisive actions. While it is not known what type of cultural sensitivity training Greek athletes receive in relation to their public conduct, if any, Voula's exclusion from the Olympic Games sends a clear message to other would be "jokers" or "commentators": Before you publicly proclaim your bias, remember who you are, who you represent and who you are about to hurt. It is a lesson well learnt.
Of course, such manifestations of bigotry are the unfortunate consequence of a previously largely homogenous society experiencing the growing pains of adjusting to an unplanned, ad hoc and largely laissez faire multi-culturalism. Right-wing fringe groups reacting to the economic crisis by blaming minority groups aside, and without dismissing the validity of convictions as to the incoherency of current social and immigration policy leading to an increased crime rate, it is important to stress that even when they are spouting rubbish from their facial orifices, as they are wont to do when engaged in abstract theorising, the vast majority of the Greek people are deeply sympathetic to migrant groups and treat them with the common decency that they are renown for. This does not man however, that we should tolerate behaviour that offends and pillories an entire racial group.
Descending from our high horse from just a minute, it is worthwhile to note by comparison that our own ethnic group has been reduced to the status of a disease for at least two generations here in "racially tolerant" and "ethnically harmonious" Australia as well. For that is what the term "wog" means. When did this term of abuse cease to be one? When we adopted it and dextrously employed it as an article of ethnic pride. Until next Olympiad. mouths closed..
First published in NKEE on Saturday 4 August 2012.