Voula Papachristou, Olympic Values, Racism, and Free Speech

Greek triple-jumper Voula Papachristou, after making a truly stupid attempt at joke about African athletes and West Nile virus, got herself booted for her country delegation. I think the San Francisco Chronicle is right that Olympic values have already been substantially degraded by the end of amateurism, and corporate sponsorship, and the geopolitical maneuvering that’s gone on around them. But Papachristou’s case is also an illustration of why it would be lovely to have serious consideration of Olympic values, and why it remains incredibly hard to do so.

The Olympics are supposed to be a moment of world peace and unity, but they’re also an occasion for rather intense nationalist competition. The athletes who represent their countries are faced with the pressure of both winning for them and representing them admirably, a burden that many of them, extremely young and sequestered from normal life for much of their training periods, may not have been particularly well-prepared to do. Ideally free speech and anti-racism would both be Olympic values, but Papachristou’s case illustrates the difficulties of reconciling them when they come into conflict. I’m excited to root for Team USA this summer, and to watch me some truly bonkers Olympics Opening Ceremonies performances. But all of these other questions are critically important not just for a couple of weeks every other year. We could stand to consider Olympic and national values a little more closely.