Thursday, January 17, 2008

From the You've Got to Be Kidding Me File: Turk-Cypriots Want Baghdatis Banned

When I first started following tennis all those many years ago, part of its appeal was that it was an international game that taught me a lot about geopolitical issues. Boris Becker, for example, burst onto the scene in 1984 at an interesting time in German (then West German) history. It seems like ancient history now, but there was considerable tension for Germans as they made their way in the world, and German athletes were certainly not immune to it. When the 17 year-old Becker won Wimbledon the newspapers ran headlines about "Blitzkrieg Becker" and "Bombs Over Britain."

A funny thing happened on the way to that title though. The British people fell for Becker like game, set, match. From then on it was Beckermania. His cultural impact was huge. You may dismiss it, but over the years there have been many articles examining Becker's significance to Germans. As they tell it, Boris was the first thing they could feel proud of, both publicly and privately, since WWII. Bekcer's entry onto the world staged marked the first time they could express any kind of nationalism that was enencumbered by guilt, shame, fear and international admonishment. Becker of course, was easy to love. (Click here for a 2001 Time Magazine article examining the effect these things had on Becker the man. Put simply: it freaked him out. Becker was so frightened of what the Germans would do after reunification he refused to support the country's Olympic bid. Becker later married a black woman and that relationship became the subject of public debate, leading Boris to become an anti-racism activist).

I bring this up in part to prepare you for a later post about my favorite topic of the last two years - the Sensational Serbs - but also because the ugly side of geopolitics really hit the fan yesterday when police subdued 10 Greek-Cypriots with pepper spray. One of those people was the president of a nationalistic group of Cypriots called Hellas Fan Club. What in the world does this have to do with Marcos Baghdatis?

Well let's back up. Tuesday night the police subdued about ten tennis fans with pepper spray (I am not making this up) during Chilean Fernando Gonzalez's match with Greek player Konstantinos Economidis. The officials took a hard line against the fans, including the aforementioned Greek-Cypriots, because of last year's giant mess, when 150 Serbian and Croatian tennis fans beat the shit out of each other with flag poles. It is rare to see this kind of behavior away from Davis Cup, but we are learning that these old blood feuds die hard.

So what did Marcos Baghdatis do? Well, back up again, just for a minute. Melbourne has the largest number of Greeks outside of Greece itself, and is considered the largest Greek city outside of Greece proper. Baggy is a Greek-Cypriot and he really packs the house Down Under. His matches are a rollicking good time for all, he has enough fans support that the matches feel like soccer games. Apparently last year our Baggy attended a barbecue thrown by the Hellas Fan Club and was caught hanging with the president, Mr. Expelled-from-the-Open, in a series of videos that found their way to You Tube. In the videos Baggy says some things about Turk-Cypriots, chanting nationalistic slogans about kicking the Turks out of Cyprus. The Turks living in Australia are in an uproar. They want him thrown out of the tournament and out of the country.
"The community and I have view this breaches the state Racial Vilification Act and when someone gets a visa to come to Australia to play tennis there are certain visa conditions and he's breached all these conditions."
The Australian Greek community is also outraged. Their spokesperson pointed out that in the video you can't tell what Baggy is saying because his arm is in front of his face and he's in a crowd of people who are chanting. They also claim that whatever was said was not racist because "It's not exactly expressing a view which doesn't conform with the UN resolution or with the general global view of that incident." The "incident" refers to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and the continuing hostility that has partitioned the island.

As his country's only star that burns brightly beyond their borders, Baghadtis shoulders an extra burden. When he made his incredible run to the finals of the Australian two years ago, Cyprus declared the day of the finals a national holiday. It wasn't just that he did it, it was how he did it. We tennis fans are smitten with the exuberant personality and style that he is capable of on his best days. (If he isn't eating bonbons with Serena in the locker room). Baggy's popularity at home is such that deals with issues that are bigger than the 46-weeks a year tennis grind. Being the public face of your country is a role fraught with land mines and he just found one.

Baggy had this to say in his defense:

"There has been a lot of coverage of me appearing in a video on"

"In that video from 2007, I was supporting the interest of my country, Cyprus while protesting against a situation that is not recognized (sic) by the United Nations.

"Now I would like to concentrate on the tournament and ask everyone to respect that.

"I love the Australian Open and want to do well here."

I have no opinion on his appearance at the barbecue or whatever he said or did not say. As always, I completely reject throwing someone out of the country for words. I am not an expert on Australian law or the Racial Vilification Act, but I do not like this kind of legislation, wherever it appears. I can agree with it in spirit, but when it comes to free speech I tend to be something of an absolutist.

Above: the incendiary video with commentary from Aussie tv, whose tv personalities can be heard chuckling about a roe started by a barbecue. You have to love them for that.

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