Posts full of “bravos” and “respect” flooded the internet. As a four-time Olympian, winner of a gold medal in Athens in 2004 and a bronze in Beijing four years later, Sofia Bekatorou is used to praise. This time, however, the praise was not about her sailing prowess. Speaking at an online conference organized by the Ministry of Culture and Sport titled “Start to Talk – Break the Silence – Speak, Do Not Tolerate,” she spoke about the abuse she suffered as a young athlete. But, let’s call a spade a spade: “abuse” is a euphemism for what clearly was rape.
She was 21 and he was an official of the Hellenic Sailing Federation. “In my young, innocent mind, the only solution was to keep silent and pretend nothing had happened,” she said. “With a lot of work, therapy and analysis, I managed to accept my responsibility for not speaking then, so that this official could be banned from sports facilities.”
This is not unheard of. We constantly hear of cases around the world concerning the sexual harassment of athletes of both sexes, minors and adults. But Bekatorou’s story does not limit itself to the denunciation. She describes a personal ordeal of many years, until the liberating admission, during which the imprint of the original shock, the violation she suffered, was “there,” a presence.
The story has no moral, no “therefore.” Senior official X “never expressed remorse or changed the way he operated.” Sofia Bekatorou achieved success, “having lost the greatest good as a person: loving oneself.”
Social reactions to such disclosures vary widely: from the inevitable whispers and sarcasm about the victim to “death to the abuser.” Meanwhile, the victims usually stay silent. Obviously, this is not just true in the sports world. A long time usually passes before they dare make a public statement.
It takes mental strength and courage, support and determination. Most take the “secret” to their grave, while guilt and suffering have indelibly stamped their fate.
Accepting and sharing the truth, which may lead to the perpetrator’s punishment, is the “good” outcome, the example that heartens some and may deter the others. Professed “zero tolerance” is neither a given nor, on its own, helps break the silence. Sofia Bekatorou’s contribution was pivotal, not only because she did not put up with what happened to her or because she spoke up. But mainly because she revealed to us her tortured path to the podium, and to catharsis.