Greek athlete kicked off Olympic team after tweets

Greek athlete kicked off Olympic team after tweets

Published Jul. 25, 2012 7:01 p.m. ET

Triple jumper Voula Papachristou was kicked off Greece's Olympic team Wednesday for her comments on Twitter mocking African immigrants and expressing support for a far-right political party.

The Hellenic Olympic Committee said Papachristou is ''placed outside the Olympic team for statements contrary to the values and ideas of the Olympic movement.''

''It's the same as violating fair play,'' Isidoros Kouvelos, head of Greece's Olympic mission, told Greece's private Skai TV. ''We are not here just to get medals, but to promote the Olympic ideals, to show our character.'' He added that the Hellenic Olympic Committee did not contact Papachristou either before or after issuing the statement excluding her from the games.

Papachristou is in Athens. The committee said she was to travel to London shortly before the track events.


After the comments and the ensuing uproar, the Hellenic Olympic Committee announced that it had banned all Greek athletes from using social media to express any personal opinions not related to the Olympics and to the preparation for their competitions.

''What we did after this is was to ban all statements on social media (such as) Twitter and Facebook, that are not related to the games. They can't express personal opinions on other, third subjects, but only about themselves, their athletic condition, if they're on form, or about the games, until the games are over,'' Hellenic Olympic Committee spokesman Tassos Papachristou told The Associated Press in London. The spokesman is no relation to the athlete.

The decision to pull the triple jumper from the Olympic team was irreversible, he said.

''She has been informed ... that this is a decision that will not change,'' he said.

Papachristou's Twitter account ((at)papaxristoutj) contained several retweets and links to sites and YouTube videos promoting the views of Golden Dawn, a formerly marginal extreme right party that entered the Greek Parliament in two recent elections - in May and June - by polling almost 7 percent of the vote. She has since erased those links and retweets from her account.

But it was her attempt at a joke Sunday that got the most attention. Commenting on the widely reported appearance of Nile-virus-carrying mosquitoes in Athens, Papachristou wrote: ''With so many Africans in Greece, the West Nile mosquitoes will be getting home food!!!''. Her tweet prompted thousands of negative comments that snowballed Wednesday.

Since anyone can access an unprotected Twitter account, Papachristou's YouTube links and retweets inevitably became known. Several of her now erased retweets were original tweets by Ilias Kasidiaris, the Golden Dawn spokesman and one of the party's 18 Parliament members, who became notorious a few weeks ago for hitting a woman Communist lawmaker in the face and throwing water at another female legislator during a TV talk show. Papachristou tweeted to Kasidiaris on his name day, July 20, ''Many happy years, be always strong and true!!!'' That tweet has now been erased.

Papachristou's initial reaction to the negative comments, on Tuesday, was to tweet: ''That's how I am. I laugh. I am not a CD to get stuck!!! And if I make mistakes, I don't press the replay! I press Play and move on!!!''

Her attitude changed completely Wednesday and she posted six apologetic tweets in less than two hours. The last tweet, a long one in English, which also was posted on her Facebook account, reads: ''I would like to express my heartfelt apologies for the unfortunate and tasteless joke I published on my personal Twitter account. I am very sorry and ashamed for the negative responses I triggered, since I never wanted to offend anyone, or to encroach human rights.

''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. I would like to apologize to all my friends and fellow athletes, who I may have insulted or shamed, the National Team, as well as the people and companies who support my athletic career. Finally, I would like to apologize to my coach and my family.''

Before the publication of the last tweet, Democratic Left, one of the three parties in Greece's coalition government, published a statement assailing the ''racist humor'' and calling on the Hellenic Olympic Committee to expel Papachristou from the Olympics

''Let her make any miserable `jokes' on social media while watching the games on TV. She definitely cannot represent Greece in London,'' the Democratic Left statement said.

The socialists, another coalition government partner, released a much milder statement, saying that ''issues touching on human dignity should not be treated lightly. ... We hope that Ms. Papachristou has, though belatedly, realized her mistake and her public apology is sincere.''

Greece's track and field federation SEGAS applauded the decision to exclude Papachristou from the Olympics and announced she would face a disciplinary panel.

Papachristou, 23, also had her defenders. Her Bulgarian coach, Georgi Pomaski said that ''she did something childish. ... I respect the decision, but it is a little harsh for a kid we are trying to educate,'' he said. Her sports club, AEK, also waded in, saying the exclusion from the Olympics for ''a mistake'' was hypocritical. ''We will fight any attempt to exclude our athlete ... by all legal means,'' the club statement said.


Associated Press writer Elena Becatoros contributed to this report from London.