Greek athlete loses Olympic dream over online chatter

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A Greek triple jumper lost her spot in the Olympics on Wednesday after tweeting what she later called an ‘unfortunate and tasteless joke’ about Africans in Greece.

Voula Papachristou had been pilloried for joking Sunday on Twitter, ‘With so many Africans in Greece, at least the mosquitoes of West Nile will eat home food!’ The Democratic Left party called publicly for Papachristou to be ousted from the Olympic team, slamming her tweet as racist.


Papachristou also retweeted videos and postings from Golden Dawn, an extreme right party that got an unexpected boost in Greek elections this year, winning 7% of the vote. The party, whose symbol resembles a swastika, is virulently opposed to immigration and has been denounced for thuggish tactics.

As her Twitter joke drew more and more attention, the Hellenic Olympic Committee announced Wednesday that Papachristou had been ‘suspended after her comments that go against the values and ideals of Olympism.’ She had not yet arrived in London for the Games, it said.

American company Procter & Gamble said on Twitter that it was cutting off its association with Papachristou after the committee’s decision. ‘Her comments don’t reflect the opinions of P&G,’ it said.

Papachristou had brushed off criticism at first before issuing an apology Wednesday. ‘I am very sorry and ashamed for the negative responses I triggered, since I never wanted to offend anyone, or to encroach human rights,’ she wrote on Facebook, apologizing to fellow athletes and her coach.

‘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,’ her statement said. Her ouster is another sign of how social media are shaping the Olympics.The same day that Papachristou lost her Olympic hopes over her online chatter, an Egyptian athlete sparked a furor by tweeting that Olympians had gotten ‘fake’ Nike gear, embarrassing the Egyptian Olympic Committee with the suggestion that they might have fallen victim to a counterfeiting scam.

In London, the outpouring of personal communications has also posed new problems for the Olympics as organizers try to control how the Games are rolled out to the public. Under International Olympic Committee social media guidelines, athletes aren’t allowed to mention brands or products online without permission or be vulgar, obscene or undignified. Fans can videotape events from the stands with their cellphones, but they aren’t supposed to put the clips on Twitter or Facebook, lest they beat the broadcasters to the punch.

But while Papachristou may have used a new medium to express herself, she was breaking old rules. ‘There’s nothing new in the rules, but clearly in a new era of social media it has to be more careful about the way one expresses oneself,’ IOC spokesman Mark Adams told the Telegraph on Wednesday.


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Voula Papachristou lands in the sand after her jump in the women’s triple jump final at the European Athletics Championships in Helsinki, Finland, in June. Credit: Matt Dunham / Associated Press