The contretemps surrounding Olympic swimmers Nick D'Arcy and Kenrick Monk continues. First, the swimmers were brought home early, as punishment for posting images of themselves on Facebook and Twitter, posing in a Californian gun shop, guns akimbo (for D’Arcy) and holding what appears to be a heavy-weight handgun (Monk). Next, it is said they will be allowed to compete in London at the Games, but will be brought home immediately after 4 August, the date of completion of all swimming events. Further, throughout the Games they will be banned from ‘blogging’ or using any social media. These decisions of the Australian Olympic Games Committee (AOC) have been publicised widely. Now, Swimming Australia’s determination is reported: the sole sanction imposed by that body is an agreed ‘ban’ on social media dissemination by both swimmers, until the Games are concluded.
Responses are mixed. The Ageexecutive news editor Patrick Smithers decries the publicity surrounding the pair and the outcome – so far. He says the duo were ‘indeed stupid’ in posting on Facebook ‘photographs of themselves posing with high-powered weapons in an American gun shop’. However, their ‘stupidity’ for him lies in their having ‘failed to anticipate the sanctimonious, knee-jerk and hypocritical reaction back home to their high jinks’.
Jim Morton of the Sydney Morning Heraldbrands the swimmers’ activity as ‘skylarking’ while Mick Coulter, Sunday Ageproduction editor, sees the episode as ‘trifling’ when taken in isolation from D’Arcy’s history of engagement with the legal system, a ‘history of violence’. In the present instance, Coulter observes: ‘No laws were broken, no one was harmed. But the message that D'Arcy sent the world couldn't be clearer: he doesn't give a stuff what anyone thinks. It's the sort of focus and self-obsession that is an invaluable asset in an athlete, but an active liability in a citizen. The question then becomes one of what sort of person we're comfortable with representing us on the international stage. Are we happy with muscled thugs who can deliver the prestige of a gold medal, no matter how they behave?’
Somewhat predictably, a politician has stepped in to condemn ‘political correctness’ as denying men ‘the right to be men’. The member for the seat of Kennedy took to the airwaves to defend D’Arcy, a fellow Queenslander, and Monk, whom he described as ‘sporting heroes’, the ‘real crime’ being ‘thought police’ accused of ‘stripping us of the right for boys to be boys’. Why should Olympic swimmers be ‘vilified for being photographed with legal firearms in the U.S?’
Meanwhile others – including fellow swimmers – are cited as agreeing with the punishments. One is quoted as concluding that it’s ‘harsh’ but ‘fair’, stating that as the view of some fellow swimmers, too.
Is this a storm in a teacup? High-jinks in a hand-basket? Is Patrick Smithers’ view right, when he ends his Age opinion piece with a reference to shooting as an Olympic sport, with the apparent implication that because Australia sends a shooting team to the Games, this somehow is an answer to the wielding of guns in a U.S. gun shop by a pair who have no Olympic credentials in the ‘sport’ of shooting.
Is the AOC correct or being ‘sanctimonious’ - or going along with sanctimony - in ‘punishing’ the swimmers? Does this serve to detract from the more serious events in which D’Arcy and Monk have been involved: for the one (D’Arcy) conviction for a serious assault on a fellow swimmer, then declaring himself bankrupt when faced with a damages claim in a civil suit; for the other (Monk) making a false claim about an injury, originally alleging it was inflicted upon him by a ‘hit and run’ accident so as to avoid responsibility for causing his own injuries.
Yet doesn’t the entire episode raise questions far more telling than those apparently responded to by the AOC and Swimming Australia (SA)? The issue for both appears to be not that D'Arcy and Monk were in a Californian gun shop at all or that they were seemingly in thrall to the readiness with which weapons can be obtained in the U.S., nor that they were at the ready to try out their prowess by shooting the weapons in the store: a service apparently extended to prospective customers or simple sightseers. No, the concern of both the AOC and SA seems to be solely that (in an AOC representative’s words, echoed by SA) the pair have ‘poor decision-making skills’ – not because they did all that, but because they had the gall to publicise it on Twitter and Facebook.
Is social networking and Internet publicity the problem? Or have the AOC and SA missed the most crucial element in this affair?
In 2011, The Guardianreported on the latest FBI crime statistics, compiled from local law enforcement and FBI reports. Of 12,996 murders in the U.S. in 2010 (not including Florida and with ‘incomplete’ data from Illinois), 8,775 were caused by firearms. Although ‘gun crime is going down’ the figures showed California ‘had the highest number of gun murders’ that year – 1,257, being ’69 per cent of all murders in 2010 and equivalent to 3.37 per 100,000 people in the state’. That was 8 per cent down on 2009 figures.
An international comparison of gun deaths for countries including the U.S. and Australia shows that generally suicides by firearms outstrip unlawful killings, with a small number of ‘accidental’ deaths. The Gun Control Network reported that for the U.S., in 2010 firearms deaths comprised 3.98 unlawful killings per 100,000 population, 5.92 suicides per 100,000, and 0.36 per 100,000 recorded as accidental deaths. In the same year, for Australia the figures were 0.24 unlawful killings per 100,000 population, 1.34 suicides per 100,000 and 0.10 per 100,000 ‘accidental deaths’.
The proliferation and ownership of guns in Australia remains an issue. Gun Control Australia observes that April 2012 was the sixteenth anniversary of the Port Arthur firearms killings, setting out a brief history of efforts to tighten gun control laws: ‘In the three decade span between the mid 1950s and the mid 1980s Australia experienced very high yearly rates of gun deaths. During this period, shooter groups were the governments’ main reference advisors on gun laws.
She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.