August 7, 2012
The London Olympics features 302 events. But this year there clearly is a new category: racial sensitivity. These Olympic Games are rife with examples of people taking offense, and it’s time to discuss some guardrails and guidelines before political correctness takes over completely.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 Heraldpointed 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.
The German media has been tying itself in knots trying to reconcile its desire to expel the far right from public life with principles of tolerance and fairness. Left-wing newspapers are bemoaning the fact that Drygalla was even allowed on the Olympic team, because regional rowing and sports federations were informed of her relationship with Fischer last year. The center-left Berliner Zeitung cautions Drygalla’s critics against making “a snap judgment. Otherwise they may themselves hurt the spirit of tolerance and democracy.”
Drygalla’s former teammates in her Rostock rowing club are bitter. They say the treatment she received recalls the practice of sippenhaft, which means “kin liability.” It was used by the Nazi regime to justify the arrest and torture of the relatives of dissidents and suspects.
People who want to root out everyone accused of holding objectionable views from Olympic teams — or anyone who is related to someone who has objectionable views — would be wise to remember something: The Olympics is about sports, not politics. Every country in the world, no matter how odious, is allowed to compete. That includes North Korea, which starves its own people and maintains sadistic gulags for dissidents. It includes Cuba and Uganda, which persecute gays. It includes Saudi Arabia and Iran, where female adulterers can be stoned to death.
If people really want an Olympics free of people who are offensive, they should call for a committee to screen out countries with abominable human-rights records. After all, some athletes may be complicit in the activities of their government, informing on teammates in exchange for favored treatment. East German Olympic figure skater Katarina Witt, one of the darlings of the ice rink in the 1980s, was later proven to be an informer for the Stasi secret police who met with her control agent even after the Berlin Wall fell.Somehow I doubt the Racial Sensitivity Police at the Olympics want to open that can of worms. Instead, they prefer to score cheap points by enforcing their brand of political correctness — for offenses that are sometimes real, sometimes exaggerated, and sometimes just silly.