Tonight the London Olympics officially open… and someone has already been disqualified from competition.
Triple Jumper Voula Papachristou was politely asked to return to her native Greece after making disparaging comments about Africans.
She tweeted that, “With all of the Africans in Greece at least the West Nile Mosquitos will eat homemade food.”
Every 4 years we are treated to the beauty and pageantry of the Opening Ceremonies, a celebration of nations and world heritage. The beauty and promise of the world’s youth are spotlighted against the backdrop of hope.
The display of unity and solidarity among peaceful, yet different, nations is always one of the most stirring aspects of the games.
This doesn’t mean that things can’t get heated a few days into the competition though.
The talent and charisma of youth, working in combination with personal ambition, brings a lot of pride and ego to the Olympic Village. This eventually spills over into the kind of personal rivalry that makes for great televised drama.
Sometimes that rivalry and ego isn’t merely personal though.
During the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the Spanish basketball team was reprimanded for having their pictures taken while using their fingers to “slant” their eyes.
When confronted about it their response was that they were “only kidding” and that they “didn’t think it was offensive.”
The subtle pride demonstrated by those statements (no one on the team considered how a Chinese person would feel about it) is actually quite common to humankind; we all think that our culture and way of thinking is best.
We demonstrate this in little ways every time we open our mouths.
Our words betray our sense of superiority, and while they may not be “racist” they certainly can reveal a prejudiced self-centeredness.
The Olympics aren’t important for their sporting or economic aspect, most countries lose more money and competitions than they win, and they certainly aren’t important for ethnic pride, since nearly every country has imported talent from some other nation.
The Olympics are important because they put people of different cultures in the same location to build relationships, sport is just the common ground that the new relationships are built on.
As we begin real relationships with people of a different culture, we lose the ability to see them as inferior. Cultural interchange brings with it the ability to elevate our neighbor’s standing and while lowering our own inflated self-esteem.
Of course to do this we would have to be willing to experience the discomfort of going beyond ourselves in relationship with others.
Isn’t our desire to maintain our own sense of superiority and comfort what keeps us from interacting with people who are different from us?
Would we use the phrase “bury the hatchet” if our next door neighbors were Choctaw or Seminole?
If Voula Papachristau had spent time with the African community in her home country would she be making jokes about a disease that people die from?
The only way to eliminate our personal prejudice is to interact with people that we don’t have the privilege to spend time with and the Olympics gives young, brash, competitors the opportunity to confront their most formidable opponent: ego centricity.
If only we’d all take the same opportunities.
Everyday is an opportunity to learn something new about someone else. It’s also an opportunity to learn something about ourselves.
It’s helps to remember that this isn’t always beautiful as it’s happening.