Olympic gold winner’s sexual abuse case is a turning point for Greece

When the Olympic gold medallist Sofia Bekatorou appears before a public prosecutor on Wednesday to reveal the sexual abuse she allegedly endured at the hands of a senior sport official, all of Greece will be watching.

For the sailing champion who shot to fame in the 2004 Athens Olympics, the court proceedings will mark the official end of the fear she says has kept her silent for more than two decades. As she paves the way for more women to speak out, she will lift the veil on a subject considered so taboo in Greece it was never previously aired in public.

“In her person I’ve encountered all those women who have been abused either verbally or physically,” said the country’s first female head of state, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, after meeting the sailing champion at the presidential palace on Monday, shortly after she made the claims. “I hope her brave revelation will blow like a rushing wind and sweep any hypocrisy, any cover-up attempt, away.”

One by one fellow athletes have come forward with similar claims of abuse. Away from the world of sport, women have also emerged to report purported acts of sexual assault.

In Thessaloniki, more than 100 female students once enrolled in the northern metropolis’s main university reported being abused by a departmental professor at the institution, according to state-run TV.

Greek president Katerina Sakellaropoulou welcomes Sofia Bekatorou at the presidential palace in Athens. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/AP

Politicians across the spectrum have acknowledged the significance of the moment.

In a rare display of unity, the prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and his leftist predecessor, Alexis Tsipras, both voiced support for victims whose determination to speak out has elicited echoes of the #MeToo movement.

Bekatorou, who was the Greek flag-bearer for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, claims she was abused by a senior member of the Hellenic Sailing Federation (HSF) in a hotel room before the 2000 Sydney Games. She was 21 at the time.

Addressing an online conference organised by Greek authorities to debate the issue last week, she recalled how she had decided against reporting the incident for fear her sport career would be forever ruined.

“Years later, having two children and thinking that other children would be in my place, I found the courage to speak up,” she told the conference, adding that she had also resisted telling her parents out of concern that they would prevent her from continuing sailing.

The sport star has never named her alleged abuser. But on Saturday the federation’s vice-president, Aristeidis Adamopoulos, stepped down, citing the “great negative publicity” the allegations would have on the Hellenic Olympic Committee.

Sofia Bekatorou leads her delegation during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Sofia Bekatorou leads her delegation during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Photograph: Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images

He acknowledged that the accusation was aimed at him but, in a statement, vigorously denied any wrongdoing. “It is expected that complaints against me, made by a public figure, of great recognition and wide social impact, will gather public interest, create feelings of compassion for the complainant and disgust for the alleged ‘perpetrator’,” he said, calling for due process. He has stated the accusations are “false, defamatory and deceitful”.

The HSF had previously described the accusation as an “unpleasant incident”, saying it would look into the case if Bekatorou provided more details, but the backlash to its statement was such that it subsequently requested the vice-president’s resignation to facilitate further investigations and “preserve the prestige of the federation”. Adamopoulos’s affiliation with the governing centre-right New Democracy party has also been cut.

Although Greece’s statute of limitation means the case can no longer be tried in court, the ensuing inquiry unleashed by the allegations is being viewed as nothing short of groundbreaking.

Despite making great strides to align its laws and institutions with other EU member states, Greece remains one of Europe’s most socially conservative societies and, outside of major urban centres, traditional mores still reign supreme.

“Institutionally, and at a state and political level, Greek society has changed immensely over the last 30 to 40 years,” said Aliki Mouriki, a sociologist at the National Centre of Social Research. “But in practice, on an every day level, it remains very patriarchal, traditional and conservative.”

Behind the scenes “stories of abuse of power” in the world of sport, arts, politics and the media were legion, Mouriki said. “That is why this is a breakthrough moment that a lot of us have wanted for a very long time.”

Maria Syrengela, the country’s deputy labour minister in charge of gender equality issues, called Bekatorou’s move more important than the 10 medals she had won as an Olympian.

“Sofia is one of the most popular athletes in our country, so symbolically her decision to speak out is very significant,” she told the Guardian. “More women now will talk and we want them to talk. This is not a women’s issue, it’s a gender equality issue. It’s hugely important that [male] politicians have also come out stating very clearly that there is no place, and can be no tolerance, for gender-driven violence of any kind.”