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.

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