Dubious Greek melodrama over Voula Papachristou

Voula Papachristou: guilty of stupidity, not racism

Greece loves a drama, the more melodramatic the better. In Athens, and I am sure in all parts of the beautiful Hellenic world, this is evident in daily life.

A yaya waddles for the bus and misses it, all hell breaks loose; wailing, gnashing, evil incantations, the works. A motorist edges out into the traffic causing a motorbike to slow down from the 100ks he was doing while smoking his cigarette, taking on his mobile and nursing his frappe and the world explodes. The decibel level goes through the roof with belly-aching screams of mutual loathing, the hands and fists pumping as if one or other is about to batter the living bejaysus out of each other.

And nothing, of course beats an Olympic-sized drama on the eve of the Games. Eight years ago, the country went quite dilly when Kostas Kenteris and Katherina Thanou missed a doping test after, ahem, falling off their motorbike. The panel beaters would have done a good trade with the amount of breast-beating that was going on.

Well, now we have the case of Voula Papachristou, a triple jumper, who is off the team for what was deemed to be inappropriate use of the social media.

Now, I have worked in offices in Athens where the management will sit doing nothing for weeks on end before lurching towards one of his employees to deliver a fierce and totally unjust broadside. The management and ownership of Greek companies are by and large playground bullies, ever eager to throw their weight around in a bid to come out looking strong and just and fair.

And cowards. The target is more usually than not a) young and b) female, to wit the most junior ranks in the office.

Hence when I hear about Papachristou being axed from the Greek Olympic team for tweeting a joke that walks an uncomfortable line between bad taste and racism, I cannot help wondering if this isn’t another example of the playground bully throwing his weight around, using a sledgehammer to smash open a nut.

This is what Papachristou tweeted: “With so many Africans in Greece … at least the West Nile mosquitos will eat homemade food!!!”

Erm, well it isn’t particularly funny and it is certainly in bad taste, especially given the immigration issues in Greece.  But is it racist or just a bad joke?

You see people make jokes about all sorts of things. Back in the 1980s there were numerous gags about AIDS, usually with some kind of gay twist. Did that make everyone homophobic?

How about this one; “Did you hear about the leper who failed his driving test?…He left his foot on the clutch.”

This kind of joke may be crude and may poke fun at the leper community but is it actually anti-leper?

At what point does a joke go beyond the poking fun and actually become –ist?

Everyone will have their own view on Papachristou’s joke. My own feeling is that she is guilty not so much of telling a joke that is racist but of telling a joke that isn’t very funny, rather like Daley Thompson’s throwaway line about a misspelt tattoo probably being Irish.

Racism is, of course, a hot potato in Greece at the moment. There is a massive influx of immigrants from Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan and so on.

Greece’s European colleagues have conveniently turned their backs on the problem leaving Greece to deal with large-scale immigration on its own. It has responded in heavy-handed fashion, using over-populated holding camps and making it inordinately difficult for immigrants to become legal residents.

Papachristou will be missing from the triple jump at the London Olympics because of her tweet

And there is certainly racism in Greece; aimed not just at the illegals but at the large number of Albanians and Bulgarians who, while I was living in Athens, were blamed on a daily basis for the increase in crime. My wife and I were racially verbalised on several occasions by a neighbour who  told us time and again that we weren’t wanted and that we should go home. (I think it was Freddie, our cat she really didn’t like – but he was of course a genuinely 100 per cent Athens street cat so she turned her venom on us.)

In the confusion of this year’s elections came the disturbing rise of Golden Dawn, the far-right party that is all but Nazi in its doctrine. They won seven per cent of the vote in the second election and now sit in parliament.

This has perhaps made Greeks edgy about the whole racism debate. And Papachristou’s case might not have been helped by the fact she had retweeted comments that came from Golden Dawn.

Even so, in the spirit of democracy, is it not somebody’s right to have freedom of political choice and freedom of expression?

So far as I recall, no one suggested that the British Prime Minister David Cameron step down for his preposterous and some might say racist comments suggesting that Greeks would not be allowed to enter the UK if they left the Eurozone.

Papachristou tried to make a joke and it backfired. She quickly apologized.

She certainly needed a good rap over the knuckles and a severe dressing down about the realities of life in the public eye.

But expelling her from the Olympic team was heavy-handed – an overreaction aimed perhaps at appeasing a national guilt with a big international statement.

©Barney Spender 2012

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