The Social-Media Olympics: Are Officials Restricting Free Speech?

Social-media gaffes are costing Olympians dearly. But should they have more leeway to express themselves?

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Swimming Australia has ordered Olympic swimmers Nick D'Arcy, left, and Kenrick Monk to return home after their events after a picture of them posing with guns was posted on Facebook

Olympic athletes might want to treat social media like fatty foods, excessive late-night frivolity before their competitions and steroids.

Stay away.

Twitter has already gotten one athlete booted from the Olympics. A triple jumper from Greece, Paraskevi Papachristou, wrote a tweet on Sunday, and the Hellenic Olympic Committee is prohibiting her from participating in the Games. In response to reports that mosquitoes are carrying the West Nile virus in her country, Papachristou wrote: “With so many Africans in Greece, the West Nile mosquitoes will be getting home food.” Papachristou has also written missives supporting a far-right political party in Greece, Golden Dawn. “We are not here just to get medals, but to promote the Olympic ideals, to show our character,” Isidoros Kouvelos, head of the Greek Olympic mission, told Skai TV in explaining the expulsion. Papachristou apologized.

Papachristou’s punishment seems reasonable: her words were stupid and horribly insensitive. But are Olympic officials too sensitive to free speech? During the Games, the Greek Olympic governing body has now banned its athletes from posting and tweeting personal opinions not related to the Olympics. But why should all Greek athletes be restricted from expressing themselves because of one transgression? Shouldn’t governing bodies trust their athletes? Here, the organization is playing the role of chaperone, telling its kids what they can and cannot do at the big party.

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In Australia, a decision to penalize a pair of swimmers for their social-media behavior has ignited a national debate. Last month Nick D’Arcy, who races in the 200-m butterfly, and Kenrick Monk, a freestyle swimmer, wielded weapons while posing for a picture in a California gun shop after a meet. They posted the photo on Facebook; it sparked outrage. “I now have concerns regarding your lack of judgment,” Nick Green, chef de mission for the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC), wrote in a letter that was also published on the AOC’s website.

A spokesman for an Australian gun-control group told the Daily Herald that Monk was holding the same guns used by the man who killed 35 people in Port Arthur, Australia, in 1996. Though the picture was taken well before the July 2o shooting in Aurora, Colo., that killed 12 people and injured dozens more, in the wake of that tragedy it is particularly cringe-worthy.

Plus, both athletes aren’t choir boys. D’Arcy was left off the Beijing Olympic team, and 2009 World Championship team, for assaulting a fellow Australian swimmer in a 2008 incident. He pleaded guilty to recklessly causing grievous bodily harm; his 14-month jail sentence was suspended. In 2011, Monk told cops a hit-and-run incident left him with a broken elbow. He later admitted to lying to the police. Monk fell off his skateboard.

After the gun photo went viral, Green allowed D’Arcy and Monk to keep their spots on the Olympic team. However, the AOC banned D’Arcy and Monk from using social media during the Olympics. Green also ordered the pair to fly home immediately after their races. But what, exactly, does that penalty accomplish? All swimming races end on Aug. 4, the midpoint of the Games. Traditionally, athletes are able to unwind a little — or a lot — after their competitions end. The AOC is essentially waving its finger at D’Arcy, 25, and Monk, 24, like an angry parent.

Still, many Australians support the Olympic committee’s decision. “People will not be applauding if D’Arcy is on the medal stand,” says Clinton Maynard, an Australian radio reporter who is in London covering the Olympics. His fellow radio reporter, Murray Olds, has a different take. Olds calls people who support the postrace banishment for the swimmers “bloody idiots.” (Olds also used a more profane adjective.)

“Please,” Olds says. “Guess what — in America, gun shops exist, sadly. Come on, it’s just silly.” Both D’Arcy and Monk, who were not made available to comment in London, have apologized for the picture. “It was just a bit of fun, a bit of bonding with the boys,” Monk said in an interview with an Australian news site last week. “There was nothing to it and we meant nothing by it.” The AOC did not return a call seeking comment.

With over 10,000 athletes at the Olympics, and many of them as obsessed with social media as you or I, we may see more social-media scandals. So athletes: please use common sense. And officials: maybe ease up a bit.

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