Lebanese rally behind Olympic skier who posed nude

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Associated Press

Posted on February 14, 2014 at 2:30 PM

BEIRUT (AP) — The video of Jacky Chamoun that surfaced on the Internet as she prepared for the Sochi Olympics caused quite a stir in Lebanon, and exposed some deeper issues.

It sparked a government investigation, which in turn triggered a deluge of criticism in the main stream and social media against the political leadership over its priorities.

Gabriel Chamoun said he was encouraged by the backing his Alpine skier daughter has received from people across Lebanon's diverse sectarian and religious spectrum in the last week.

"As a father, when I saw the video, I was very upset," he told The Associated Press on Friday. But, "The reaction of people was phenomenal. It's the first time I see Lebanese people so united."

He said the political fuss over the footage was symbolic "of everything that is going wrong in this country."

The old footage of Chamoun posing topless in the snow for a photographer prompted a Lebanese government official to order an investigation. The inference was that Chamoun had somehow harmed the country's reputation.

It was only after that decree that many people in Lebanon realized they had athletes competing at the Winter Games.

Supporters took to social media immediately to criticize politicians for targeting the young athlete while seemingly ignoring corruption, nepotism, bombings and a litany of other problems.

Within an hour, Chamoun's Facebook page had 12,000 fans. Lebanese people from as far away as Los Angeles and Sao Paolo posted semi-naked pictures of themselves, covered strategically with signs featuring messages like "Stripping For Jackie" and "I am not naked," on Twitter.

Chamoun's mother, Denise Chehab, said whatever the motives were for the people who published the video, the fallout had only galvanized support behind her daughter.

"Some people wanted to hurt us, but they ended up only harming themselves," Chehab told The AP. "Just a few days ago, nobody cared what my daughter is doing for her country at the Olympics. Now she is famous."

In the Arab world, Lebanon is a relatively liberal country with sprawling beaches and mountain resorts. The capital is renowned for its bars, restaurants and night life.

But under the surface, most people, Christians and Muslims, tend to be deeply conservative.

Chamoun acknowledged on her Facebook page that she posed for an Austrian ski calendar, and never imagined that behind-the-scenes footage would ever be published.

"I know that Lebanon is a conservative country and this is not the image that reflects our culture," Chamoun wrote. "I fully understand if you want to criticize this."

Sports minister Faisal Karameh ordered an investigation a day after the video appeared on the Internet saying that "all measures should be taken in which Lebanon's reputation and its international standing are not harmed."

His comments, carried by Lebanon's state news agency, unleashed a fury on in mainstream and social media with people accusing the leaders of hypocrisy and criticizing them for focusing on issues that have no significant impact on a country still reeling from a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

Lebanon is deeply divided along the sectarian lines. There has been no properly functioning government since last April because of political divisions over Syria, although Parliament unilaterally extended its own mandate by 18 months by skipping scheduled elections. Lebanese factions have been fighting on opposing sides of the Syrian civil war, and a massive flow of refugees has strained Lebanon's already crumbling infrastructure.

The latest wave of bombings in Beirut has compounded existing problems.

So an athlete stripping down for a photo shoot isn't likely to be high on a list of public concerns, the local media quickly highlighted.

"You can get naked. You can take photos of your nakedness. No need to apologize," an editorial in An-Nahar newspaper said, adding that many of "those who claim purity, chastity and conservative values, those who say they work to uphold Lebanon's good reputation" are guilty of other faults.

Another newspaper, Al-Akhbar, questioned in a recent editorial how Chamoun's pictures could possibly have tarnished the "already damaged image of Lebanon because of political tensions, terrorists attacks, underage marriages, mistreatment of women and many scandals of our politicians."

Chamoun said she initially was embarrassed the footage was on the Internet, but now she has come to terms with it.

"It happened," she told The AP in Sochi. "I have to go with it."

Chamoun, who comes from a prominent Christian political family, competed at the Vancouver Olympics four years ago. In Sochi, she is scheduled to race in the slalom next Friday.

Back home, the government officials demanding the investigation into Chamoun's photos appeared to have backtracked, saying they've acted to protect Chamoun's wellbeing.

"What we did, we at the ministry behaved as a sports family because we care about Jacky Chamaoun's personal reputation as an Olympic athlete," sports minister Faisal Karameh said Friday.

A top Olympic official said he couldn't understand what the fuss was about.

"Jackie's matter is not the first," scandal, R. Hassan Rustom, secretary-general of Lebanon's Olympic Committee, told the AP. "What politicians are doing is much worse than what Jackie did."

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Associated Press writers Yasmin Saker and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, and AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia, contributed to this report.

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