Monday, 22 February 2021

In Greece, an Olympian leads the 'MeToo' movement

This article was published by Al Jazeera. 

Sofia Bekatorou

ATHENS, Greece – For two decades, Greek Olympic sailing champion Sofia Bekatorou’s rape quietly smouldered inside her. During that time she became one of the most decorated athletes in Greek history, had two children and completed a degree in psychology. But she struggled constantly with her experience. 

“I couldn’t reconcile it with my character. I couldn’t forgive myself for not reacting as I would have wished,” she says in an interview with Al Jazeera. “Sometimes I tried to find a solution in my dreams, to imagine I had reacted differently.” 

Repression is a defence mechanism, she says, but “the cost of not facing [the event] is that you don’t respect yourself. You consider yourself guilty.” 

Last month she went public about how a senior official at the Greek sailing federation lured her to his hotel room in 1998, when she was 21 years old, and raped her. “He said he would stop if I wanted him to, but he didn’t stop, no matter what I said. When he finished and got up from on top of me, I left the room ashamed and in tears,” she told a magazine. 

The revelation triggered a nationwide “me too” movement and led the government to overhail amateur athletics. 

In the years that followed her rape, Bekatorou psychologically tacked. She won ten medals in the women’s 470 event with her partner Aimilia Tsoulfa, including an Olympic gold medal in 2004 and four gold medals in World Championships held in Hungary, Slovenia, Italy and Spain. But she did it against a headwind of discouragement and demoralisation from the Greek sailing federation, which she felt stemmed from her resistance to her trainer’s sexual advances, who had risen to become the sailing federation’s vice-president. 

“There was … a vindictive behaviour – attempts to belittle me as an athlete. They would say they wanted to promote new athletes to justify not supporting me as they should,” she tells Al Jazeera. 

That behaviour only became worse with time. “The more successful I became, the more they fought me. While I didn’t have such great success, no one was afraid I would acquire much of a voice.”

In 2009 Bekatorou had her first of two children and began taking an active interest in young athletes’ well-being. She observed her rapist whenever possible.  “I began to notice the way this person comported himself, and to suspect he never stopped acting in an illicit way.” 

Her suspicions of his continued sexual abuse were confirmed by reports from outside the federation, where he had acquired a reputation. “He wasn’t hiding. Did he think it was normal?” she says. 

Her opportunity to act was provided by her rapist himself. In November 2019, the government asked athletes to provide input for a sport reform bill it was preparing. Bekatorou’s fellow-athlete Nikos Kaklamanakis, also a decorated sailing champion, spoke in parliamentary committee of gross financial misconduct in the sailing federation. “If we’re asking you to tear down walls today, it is to tear down walls of corruption, abuse of power and neglect,” Kaklamanakis said. 

The sailing federation sued him for defamation. Bekatorou was called as a witness. During her deposition last November, she denounced her rape for the first time. 

A movement begins

Her later, public denunciation encouraged others to come forward. One sailing athlete revealed that her coach raped her at age 11. The coach went on the airwaves to say it wasn’t rape because he was in love with her at the time. He is in pre-trial detention. 

Public denunciations of sexual, physical and psychological abuse have since poured forth from actresses. The actors and directors they have accused have responded with defamation lawsuits. One actor defended himself from allegations of harassing an underage actress by saying, “She resisted me but I am old fashioned, so I insisted.” 

The sailing federation’s vice-president resigned after Bekatorou’s revelation. “I follow with surprise the statements of Sofia Bekatorou, according to which I allegedly sexually abused her 23 years ago,” Aristidis Adamopoulos wrote in a letter to the Hellenic Olympic Committee, where he sat. He said he was stepping down only “due to the great negative publicity that the issue has received.” 

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and president, Katerina Sakellaropoulou met with Bekatorou to offer support. Although the 20-year statute of limitations on rape has expired in her case, the government is considering extending it – though not retroactively. 

Greece is also overhauling its amateur athletic federations following allegations of sexual and financial misconduct, sports minister Lefteris Avgenakis told Al Jazeera. 

The government has barred about half the country’s roughly 10,000 sport clubs from casting ballots in next month’s elections for sports federations. A ministry audit found that many clubs were defunct, or weren’t keeping proper accounts. 

“We didn’t know how many clubs we had, nor did any previous sport minister. The sport federations knew this, so come election time, they presented whatever [results] they wanted,” Avgenakis said.  

A further 13 reforms will “address sexual abuse and abuse of power,” says a source at the sport ministry. 

A cultural issue? 

Sexual abuse statistics are lacking, says Anne Tiivas, chair of the UK-based advocacy group Safe Sport International, which campaigns for better reporting standards, but “there are some things we categorically know,” she tells Al Jazeera. “If you’re on a talent pathway you’re more likely to experience abuse.” 

Hamogelo, a Greek foster care charity which operates three national hotlines, recorded 2,009 incidents of child abuse in Greece last year. “Only 31 involved sexual abuse, which proves that people don’t talk about it and denounce it, but the problem is much bigger, considering there is no national mechanism to record sexual abuse cases,” says Hamogelo’s founder and director, Andreas Yiannopoulos.  

Yiannopoulos has advised the government to stiffen prison terms for sex offenders and clear an easier path to justice. “The time delay for cases to come to court is unacceptable. It takes years, and children become adults,” he says. 

Whether the Greek “me too” phenomenon Bekatorou triggered turns out to be a watershed moment or mere infotainment depends on how the government now tackles change, says Tiivas. “This really needs to involve experts with lived experiences – how we would describe somebody like Sofia,” she says. 

Bekatorou is considering a second career as a counsellor. She has made herself a listening post for victims of sexual abuse who have no one else to turn to, and is putting prosecutors in touch with victims. 

However much help one has, though, reporting and processing sexual abuse is always a lonely business, she says: 

“At sea there were many times when I had to branch off from the rest of the fleet and follow my own bearing, and this vindicated me in the end. So I am not afraid to be alone. When I started this struggle, I knew I might find myself entirely alone, but I preferred that to being unable to face myself.”

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