Louis Smith and the freedom to behave yourself

Freedom of speech is a precious quality, let’s not cheapen it

Image: Wikipedia Commons

Image: Wikipedia Commons

It’s been a funny old year for Louis Smith. Once the poster child of British Gymnastics (and a Strictly Come Dancing winner to boot), Smith was beaten to the pommel gold for a second successive Olympics, this time by his teammate, having cost his team a bronze in the all-around final the previous day. After a tearful medal ceremony Smith’s emotions got the better of him, and the first of multiple public apologies came after he directed several angry tweets against the judges.

A month later, and the perennially indiscreet Smith was sorrying his way across the internet once more, this time for filming himself shouting “allahu akbar”, while an evidently intoxicated accomplice pretended to pray in the direction of Mecca. Foolish, yes, but hardly malicious.

Despite prostrating himself in front of the Twittersphere and visiting two mosques, British Gymnastics were unerring, handing down a two month suspension. Smith successfully completed the set at a single stroke; earnings, reputation, and ranking all took a beating.

So while you’re wailing and gnashing over the political pileups of the last few months, or weeping gently while clutching to your bosom your limited edition LP of Bowie’s Hunky Dory, find comfort in this. For some people, 2016 has become even worse.

But while Smith’s gymnastic outbursts smack of sour grapes (you lost to the favourite mate, no one else was surprised), the severe punishments handed down by British Gymnastics strike a more sombre note. Louis Smith has effectively been prosecuted for blasphemy.

Public figures are often tried in the court of public opinion, but here the outrage was institutional only. “British Gymnastics does not condone the mocking of any faith or religion” thundered the official statement, before anyone had a chance to raise an eyebrow, hammering an imaginary gavel and waving an imaginary warrant. They take their guidelines from UK Sport, whose code of conduct includes the potential to defund athletes who are “derogatory about a person’s…beliefs”; a catch-all term that leaves almost anything punishable at the enforcer’s discretion. Thank god someone wants to stand up for the little guy.

Except that they obviously don’t, do they. First of all – on the blasphemy point – there’s the obvious double standard. A recent Family Guy episode posited that Jesus only pretended to be a virgin in order to sleep with people’s wives, while South Park showed him packing AK47s and mowing down legions of Iraqis. Monty Python satirised the crucifixion as far back as the ’70s and it’s difficult to know where to begin with Father Ted. If Louis Smith is on gardening leave from the pommel horse, then Seth MacFarlene certainly shouldn’t be hosting the Oscars.

But there is a broader point too. The treatment of Louis Smith represents the criminalisation of light mockery, but because free speech has become such an overused go-to in liberal circles, it’s begun to sound like a hollow protest. There is even meme, ‘freeze peach’ (usually a picture of a frozen peach), which correctly identifies that the phrase is so oft-repeated that it’s lost its meaning. When something so precious as freedom of expression has become a punchline for political peacocking, it’s not just embittered British gymnasts who ought to be worried.

Louis Smith – from Twitter feed to man-bun – is clearly a bit of a tool, but he’s committed no crime beyond getting drunk and very moderately taking the piss. His punishment by British Gymnastics smacks of attitudes that are, or at least should be, centuries out of date.

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