Olympic Hate: A Tale of Fine Lines

Post by Christiane Wilke

The Olympics Games are in full swing, and we at the Hate 2.0 project are watching. We are not only interested in the stellar performances by Gabby Douglas, Michael Phelps and others, but also in the forms of inclusion and exclusion that the Olympics practice.

The good news: This is the first time that all participating countries sent female athletes. To be sure, Saudi Arabia was less than supportive of its two female competitors, runner Sarah Attar and judoka Wojdan Shaherkani. While these two women are challenging norms of femininity in Saudi Arabia and conservative Muslim communities, other athletes have breached racialized codes of who belongs where: Gabby Douglas has become the first African American and the first woman of colour to win a gymnastics all-around gold medal, and Cullen Jones made clear (to whoever needed proof) that black men can not only jump but also swim.

While this blog loves good news, we’re more interested in the mixed, messy and downright alarming news. Let’s focus on the share of the Olympics news that intersects with our work on hate and social media. So far, three Olympic athletes have either been sent home or left the Olympic village for reasons of racist behavior or associations. In two cases, the offences were committed on twitter, and in one case the long-standing association to neo-Nazi groups was exposed in a blog post.

The first athletes to leave the Olympics was Paraskevi Papachristou, the Greek triple jumper who tweeted (according to available translations) “With so many Africans in Greece… the West Nile mosquitoes will at least eat homemade food!!!” The Greek Olympic mission withdrew her from the competition and sent her home. Papachristou apologized on facebook, writing “I am very sorry and ashamed for the negative responses I triggered, since I never wanted to offend anyone, or to encroach human rights.”

The next athlete to pack up was Michel Morganella, a Swiss soccer player. After his team lost to South Korea, he wrote a racist message about South Koreans on twitter, was cut from the team, and apologized on twitter.

Finally (hopefully finally, that is), German rower Nadja Drygalla packed her bags and left the Olympic village. A blog based in her hometown Rostock revealed that her long-time partner Michael Fischer was a local Neo-Nazi leader. Fischer had been sighted at Neo-Nazi demonstrations, yelling, and taking photos of anti-fascist counter-protestors. He ran for parliament on the ticket of the rightwing NPD, he published and edited websites associated with the Neo-Nazi community.

Over the next few days, a few things happened: The German Rowing Federation and the Olympics Committee stood behind Drygalla, citing her departure from the Games as voluntary. Meanwhile a debate erupted in blogs and newspapers: are we blaming a woman for the views of her partner? Was she ever part of the Neo-Nazi network? Who knew what, and when? Who should have alerted whom, when, and why?

The facts are complicated. One newspaper published a blurry photo of a Nazi demonstration claiming that a woman in a white sweater was Nadja Drygalla. This is most likely not the case. More interestingly, it turns out that her partner Michael Fischer had been an elite rower who was at the same time known as a hooligan. He straddled the worlds of competitive sports and organized hate and violence for a few years. Nadja Drygalla has since claimed that she has never adhered to Neo-Nazi ideologies and that her partner has left the organization in May 2012. The latter statement seems patently untrue.

Why have these tweets, associations, and behaviours attracted so much attention? The initial reactions to all three events have emphasized that racism is contrary to the Olympic principles, to the oath that all Olympic athletes have sworn in the opening ceremony. According to the Olympic Charter, Olympians “place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Moreover, “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” Racism is contrary to the official ethos of the Olympics.

A closer, more critical glance at the organization and practical ethos of the Olympics reveals something else. The Olympics organize athletes, events, and medal counts by country. They ask viewers not only to appreciate athletic achievements in general, but to take pride in the triumphs of athletes from their own country. The athlete stands in for the country, the flag, for the nation. True, there is the idea of the Olympic Peace: the cessation of armed conflict during the Games. But clearly, this is not happening in Syria right now. The Olympics, let’s put it this way, are replete with structural nationalism. They are the arena for competition between athletes and teams standing in for nations, dressed in uniforms with their national colours. Taking pride in one’s country during sports events might seem harmless, but it coincides with the devaluation of outsiders, as studies have shown. There is no such thing as harmless nationalism. The Olympics thrive on nationalism, and they fuel it. They want to be associated with pride in one’s country, but not with the devaluation of outsiders that tends to accompany such pride.

Viewed in this light, the reactions to the tweets and associations of the three athletes show that the Olympics are trying hard to draw a thin line between a “good” nationalism of pride and a “bad” nationalism of devaluating others that is to be expelled from the games. The triple jumper made horrific jokes about immigrants and the outbreak of a disease transmitted by insects. The soccer player did not contain his disappointment at losing in match, and expressed it in demeaning racial terms. We learn that losing is part of the Olympics, but it is to be done gracefully. The row about the rower also suggests, uncomfortably, that there is nothing inherent about sports that makes racists incapable of succeeding. Insofar as the rower had to deal with ethnic, religious, or racial diversity, it was not within her team of eight ‘vanilla’ rowers. The ‘others’ were competitors, not teammates. To be sure, this team make-up is a result of German immigration policies and sports recruitment, but the under-representation of migrants in many sports is a consistent problem. More generally, the virtues of elite sports are not incompatible with the world of hate: To be a good rower, one needs to have determination to succeed in competition, focus, and the ability to deal with pain and disappointments. These qualities have no necessary connection with democratic politics; they can also be the make-up of an extremist, of a warrior of a different kind.

The Olympics mirror a larger world in which the celebration of diversity and equality is at odds with the focus on achievements defined in a particular way: First, athletes are sorted by countries; and they have to settle on one country they can represent. This is bad news for stateless people, and makes for hard decisions for those with multiple nationalities. Wouldn’t it be great if someone could win the Olympics representing two countries, or no country at all?

Second, the competition is intensely skewed. Countries with many (young) people, a good sports infrastructure, a high GDP and strategic investments in sections of the sports “market” do well at the Olympics. Winning Olympic medals is a function of economic prowess and priorities as much as of individual physical achievement.

Third, the Olympic circuit itself does not promote an equitable or sustainable growth in infrastructure. Olympic hosts tend to go into debt, hyper-police the cities during the events, make housing unaffordable and then harass homeless people, and are later stuck with bizarre-looking reminders of the big party in the form of velodroms or ski jumps.

A sports event that sorts athletes by nationality and counts medals by country does not promote hate, but it fosters nationalism. The Olympic Oath, after all, asks athletes to compete “for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams.” While competitiveness and striving for glory are ingrained in the social organization of elite sports, human rights and equality are merely add-ons: they are not structurally necessary to succeed, but they are socially desired in order to foster the Olympic spirit. The Olympics would like to show nationalism without hate. The three athletes that were made to leave the village because their actions crossed the line that the Olympic organizers anxiously seek to draw.

What can we do about it? First of all, let’s take note of the fact that the Olympics are structured to promote nationalism, that it could be otherwise, and that nationalism has side effects in the form of hate and devaluation of outsiders. Second, let’s draw lines and censor the athletes and coaches who cross them, but let’s recognize that there is indeed only a thin line between legitimate disappointment and racist suspicions about opponents, or between competitive zeal and the exclusions of others who are perceived to be lazy. Finally, let’s find ways of organizing sports and the world at large that are less conducive to hate, exclusion and devaluation.

Picturing the Everyday: How Social Media Helps Historians

Post by Erica Fagen

As historians, what can we learn from Flickr? This has been the central question of our article. The photographs of Boeseraltermann, PM Cheung, and Thomas Rassloff were analyzed through the lens of digital humanities tools, performance, and ”vernacular creativity.” (The post on vernacular creativity will be posted at a later date). All these ways of thinking are useful in terms of conceptualizing the photographs, as well as encouraging us to think about how activists use Flickr to voice their opposition against neo-Nazis. As we have also seen, the different photographers are networked to one another and make up a community of activists.[i] With all the innovative research done for this project, this section will show that Flickr is a resource which allows us new insight on protest cultures and online opposition in everyday life. Flickr tells us that activists like Boeseraltermann who document Nazi and anti-Nazi demonstrations are networked, the details of which can be seen in the post “Search, Mine, and Collect: Our Digital Humanities Methodology.” It is a centre of connectivity – a place in which users can share and comment on each other’s photographs. Perhaps most importantly, however, is that Flickr is a centre for creativity, in terms of photo content and photo organization. Flickr is an open forum that allows photographers to share their work with the public at large.

Thomas Poell and Eric Borra, with their study of the “#g20report” hashtag used during the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010, show that Flickr was the least influential of the four social networks examined, which also included Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. They write that “Flickr is clearly the most strongly dominated by a relatively small number of users. The 20 percent most active users posted 69 percent of the selected photos.”[ii] Despite this small number, however, Flickr is still a network made up by a variety of users. It is important to look at Flickr through the lens of networking. Networking is worth discussing even further in the context of “networked publics,” as coined by danah boyd. She writes, “networked publics are publics that are reconstructed by networked technologies. As such, they are simultaneously (1) the space constructed through networked technologies and (2) the imagined collective that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice. Networked publics serve many of the same functions as other types of publics – they allow people to gather for social, cultural, and civic purposes, and they help people connect with a world beyond their close friends and family. While networked publics share much in common with other types of publics, the ways in which technology structures them introduces distinct affordances that shape how people engage with these environments. The properties of bits – as distinct from atoms – introduce new possibilities for interaction. As a result, new dynamics emerge that shape participation.”[iii] To think of Boeseraltermann, PM Cheung, and Thomas Rassloff as part of a “networked public” is useful as it helps us conceptualize their presence on social media networks. Where boyd makes her most relevant point is when she discusses interaction – it that factor that differentiates networked publics and regular publics. Her main point of interaction can be taken beyond the understanding of people talking to each other on social media sites – interaction is not limited to that. Interaction can also be “favouriting” one another’s photographs, or using similar hashtags. Scholars such as José Van Dijck agree that social media sites such as Flickr “enable the construction of infinite connections,”[iv] but she does not think that Flickr is a photo exchange site or archive. The following sections will demonstrate that Flickr is indeed a centre of connectivity, but can be thought of as an archive, contrary to Van Dijck’s views. Connectivity is only part of the reason why Flickr is important for historians to consider – creativity is equally important.

As it was emphasizing in the post “Performing Opposition,” Flickr is a centre of creative opposition. The content of photographs ranges from garden gnomes to balloons to silly caricatures of neo-Nazis. To see activism “performed” through photography is reason enough to analyze these photographs. However, creativity extends beyond the content of the photographs; it is useful to think of Flickr users as “creative practioners,” as Jean Burgess writes.[v] Going by Burgess’ definition of a creative practioner, a Flickr user is free to post what they want. Cyron, one of the Flickr users interviewed by Burgess, “understands his continuing development as a ”creative” photographer as a technical, aesthetic and self-educative process that has enriched his everyday experience in particular ways.”[vi] Both these Brisbanite and anti-Nazi amateur activist photographers can be described in this way, that Flickr allows their aesthetic and technical ability to develop. But what is most crucial to consider here is this creative freedom Flickr users have – whether it is taking photographs of the Australian landscapes or anti-Nazi demonstrations – is that it allows researchers to see unique, subjective experiences of the everyday amateur photographer. Flickr, with its capabilities of storing millions of photographs, is a resource for documenting the vernacular, or everyday, photography. Not only is it a resource, but it is an archive as well. However, not all scholars agree on that.

Despite the claims by José Van Dijck that Flickr is not archive or photo exchange site, I would argue against that, as would other scholars. Emma Angus, David Stuart and Mike Thelwall demonstrate that Flickr can be beneficial as an “academic image resource”[vii] and “results show that Flickr can be used as a resource for subject-specific images in some subject areas; and that non subject-specific images can also prove to be of value for individual academics.”[viii] They see Flickr as useful for academia because of its tagging functions, and can serve as a database for certain subject areas. They conclude with explaining that because of Flickr”s diversity, it is a far richer resource or archive than traditional databases, archives, or picture libraries. They also highlight the vastness of content of Flickr, one of the oldest social media sites in existence (it was established in 2004). They write that in November 2008, Flickr held three billion images, compared with 70 million for Getty, one of the largest media news repositories in the world.[ix] As of June 2012, Flickr holds 6 billion photographs.[x] More than 3,000 photographs are uploaded on Flickr per day.[xi] The numbers alone speak for themselves – it is crucial for historians to take Flickr seriously as an academic resource.

For all the reasons listed above, which include networking, creativity, and the ability of Flickr to be academic resource due to its tagging functions and sheer numbers – Flickr has become another medium to voice opposition to neo-Nazis. It’s availability and its scope makes it necessary for scholars, including historians, to consider. Flickr, with its potential of creativity and networking, has made it essential to study and discuss. Not only that, but Flickr gives an inside look at the everyday, of vernacular photography. Jean Burgess sums this up quite nicely in her article when she states that “the sheer ubiquitous and ordinary nature of most everyday photography, and its embeddedness within social life, that creates the conditions for Flickr as a platform for vernacular creativity with all its unintended consequences – citizenship, commerce and art.”[xii] Flickr captures the everyday – which in Hate 2.0’s case captures the everyday opposition against neo-Nazis. Flickr is a platform, a view of online protest in everyday life, and this is one of the reasons why it is important for historians to take Flickr seriously as a legitimate source. Flickr is a platform of subjective experiences and a method of visualizing protest on a mass scale. Hopefully more studies on Flickr as a hub of subjective experiences and of visualizing protest will be done in the future.

[i] Erica Fagen, “Search, Mine, and Collect: Our Digital Humanities Methodology,” hate2point0.com, July 6, 2012, accessed July 30, 2012, https://hate2point0.com/2012/07/07/search-mine-and-collect-our-digital-humanities-methodology/.

[ii] Thomas Poell and Erik Borra, “Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr as platforms of alternative journalism: The social media account of the 2010 Toronto G20 protests,” Journalism, 13, no. 8 (2011): 9.
[iii] danah boyd, “Social Networks Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications,” in A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites, edited by Zizi Papacharissi, (New York: Routledge, 2011): 39.
[iv] José Van Dijck, “Flickr and the culture of connectivity: Sharing views, experiences, memories,” Memory Studies, 4, no. 4 (2011): 412
[v] Jean Burgess, “Remediating vernacular creativity: Photography and cultural citizenship in the Flickr photo-sharing network,” in Spaces of Vernacular Creativity: Rethinking the Cultural Economy, edited by Tim Edensor, (New York: Routledge, 2010): 120-121.
[vi] Burgess, “Remediating vernacular creativity,” 121.
[vii] Emma Angus, David Stuart and Mike Thelwall, “Flickr’s potential as an academic image resource: An exploratory study,” Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 42, no. 4 (2010): 268.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Angus, Stuart and Thelwall, “Flickr’s potential as an academic image resource,” 270.
[x] Allegra Tepper, “The Rise of Mobile Photography [INFOGRAPHIC],” Mashable, June 14, 2012, accessed July 25, 2012, http://mashable.com/2012/06/14/mobile-photography-infographic/
[xi] Allegra Tepper, “How Much Data Is Created Every Minute? [INFOGRAPHIC],” Mashable, June 22, 2012, accessed July 25, 2012, http://mashable.com/2012/06/22/data-created-every-minute/.
[xii] Burgess, “Remediating vernacular creativity,” 125.