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 his first of multiple public apologies came when 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 while shouting “allahu akbar”, while an evidentaly intoxicated accomplice pretended to pray to Mecca. Oh dear.

Despite prostrating himself in front of the Twittersphere and visiting two mosques, British Gymnastics were unerring, handing him a two month suspension. Smith successfully collected the full set, with earnings, reputation and ranking all taking a beating.

So while you’re effing and blinding over the political pisstakes of the last few months, or weeping gently while clutching to your bosom your limited edition LP of David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, reflect on this. 2016, for some people, 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 had a chance to raise an eyebrow, hammering its imaginary gavel and waving an imaginary warrant. They take their guidelines from UK Sport whose code of conduct includes the potential to defund athletes if they are “derogatory about a person’s… beliefs”, a catch-all term that could denote pretty much anything its enforcer so desired. 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 once presented him packing AK47s and mowing down legions of Iraqi. Don’t even get me started on Father Ted. You cannot ban Louis Smith, unless you also revoke Seth MacFarlene’s gym membership.

But there is a broader point too. The treatment of Louis Smith is genuinely worrying – it’s 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 has lost its meaning. We must not let something so precious as free speech become a punchline for political peacocking. That’s something we should all be worried about.

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 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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