Commentary

Voula Papachristou leaps into infamy

Triple-jumper briefly draws disproportionate world attention with racist tweet

Updated: July 27, 2012, 2:51 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

You can view Greek triple jumper and Olympic exile Voula Papachristou as yet another in the long line of folks who allowed technology to run ahead of their brains and suffered the consequences. Or, if you're the more charitable and forgiving sort, you can view her as a victim or her own hubris, someone who failed to heed the first unassailable rule of social networking: Nobody cares what you think until you think something abhorrent and feel compelled to make it public.

Come to think of it, there's not much difference between the two choices. Both speak of poor judgment and big ego, always a troubling combination. In Papachristou's case, it amounted to a ban from Olympic competition handed down on Wednesday, two days before the opening ceremonies in London.

Papachristou was not expected to compete for a medal. She would not have entered the consciousness of anyone in the United States had she not tweeted a tortured joke -- her term, not mine -- about Africans and West Nile disease: "With so many Africans in Greece, the West Nile mosquitoes will be getting home food!!!"

[+] EnlargeVoula Papachristou
AP Photo/Matt Dunham Voula Papachristou competed at the European Championships in June.

Wow, she's a comic genius. Stop, my sides.

The Hellenic Olympic Committee, shockingly, wasn't amused. They made Papachristou the most famous female triple jumper of the 2012 Games by telling her to stay home. Some people might think it's better for her to take her racist, insensitive views out for a walk in public rather than keeping them behind locked doors, but the Greeks felt otherwise, probably since Papachristou was all set to represent them in front of God and Bob Costas.

This isn't a matter of whether the Hellenic Olympic Committee had the right to ban Papachristou from the Games. They make the rules, they set the team, they do whatever they want. If they think having a racially insensitive triple jumper in London wearing the country's jersey is against their principles, they tell her to stay home. And you know what? She stays home, stewing her way all through the Twitterverse and back. Ain't no First Amendment argument here.

Of course, there's another side: To believe she is the only Olympian harboring racist views is both stupid and historically na´ve. The only surprising part is that she leashed it up, told it to heel and walked it straight down Twitter Avenue. If she'd kept it to herself, she'd probably be in line to finish 17th or 18th and nobody would have ever heard her name.

But just for fun, a question: What goes through someone's mind before they post such a comment? Let's assume the absolute best about Papachristou. Let's assume, despite prevailing evidence, that she's open-minded and somehow innocently believed her words were a joke -- and, presumably, funny. In the best light, she's an ignoramus with a horrible sense of humor. If the rest of the world, including the Greek Olympic committee, had seen her in that same way and ignored her words, what was the benefit?

In a word: none. No benefit at all. But here's the thing: Her tweet about mosquitoes was just the chocolate shavings on top of the cupcake. She had retweeted links related to an extreme right-wing group called Golden Dawn, which went from the sidelines to a spot in the Greek parliament after earning 7 percent of the vote in last month's parliamentary elections. Its spokesman, Ilias Kasidiaris, one of Golden Dawn's 18 parliamentary members, punched one female parliament member and threw water in the face of another during a television show several weeks ago. By all accounts, "deranged" might be a compliment. But on July 20, Papachristou tweeted to Kasidiaris, "Many happy years, be always strong and true!!!" (The triple exclamation, it seems, is something of a trademark.) She erased that tweet, and every other one related to Golden Dawn, after the uproar regarding the mosquito tweet.

For those of us who really couldn't care less about Papachristou, the story is just one more cautionary tale about the reckless use of social media. Someday it may be a source of amusement and edification for those who dig up the 2012 time capsule. How's this for the vagaries of life in our times: An Olympic track and field athlete who spent the better part of four years training for one event in one meet achieved her goal, only to have it dashed when she tweeted a stupid and disparaging remark about Africans and mosquitoes. Isn't anyone referencing a risk/reward chart?

Papachristou's ban may turn out to be nothing more than a missed opportunity. Maybe it would have been fun to see her spend a couple of weeks in the Olympic Village, dealing with people from all nations, many of whom undoubtedly don't see the world through the same prism. Maybe she would have been educated on the value of cultural differences, or maybe she would have been shunned. Either way, she would have had to deal with the beliefs espoused in those tweets in a way that was far more personal than the angry apology she issued from Greece -- on Twitter, no less, proving some people just don't get it and never will.

And if she had competed, every time her name was mentioned, it would have been paired with a recitation of her racist, insensitive tweets. Would that have been a better punishment? You could make the argument.

In the end, technology and the Hellenic Olympic Committee teamed up to destroy the dreams of a 23-year-old triple jumper with distasteful beliefs and a horrid sense of humor. She's understandably angry, but there's a chance they did her -- but not those of us who enjoy a good diversion -- a huge favor.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com