BEIRUT: Lebanese Alpine skier Jackie Chamoun responded Tuesday to criticism from local media after images of her posing topless for an Austrian sports calendar went viral.
Chamoun, 22, is one of two athletes who are representing Lebanon at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
She and fellow Olympic skier Chirine Njeim, 29, posed for the 2014 edition of the Ski Instructors calendar at the Faraya ski resort outside of Beirut. The calendar has been out since November; but in the run-up to the Olympics, video footage documenting the Faraya photo shoot has surfaced on the Internet showing more revealing images of the women.
Since learning of the photos, local news media have been fiercely critical of the young athlete and referred to the photo shoot as a scandal. The Youth and Sports Ministry asked Lebanon’s Olympic Committee to launch an investigation of the pictures.
In her first public acknowledgment of the controversy, Chamoun apologized for offending her conservative supporters.
“I just want to make it clear to everyone who commented, shared the photos that appeared on the net in Lebanon yesterday. Yes, I did photos for an Austrian ski calendar with other professional athletes,” she wrote in a public message on her official Facebook page.
“I want to apologize to all of you, I know that Lebanon is a conservative country and this is not the image that reflects our culture. I fully understand if you want to criticise this.”
The annual Ski Instructors calendar features male and female Olympic athletes and is the brainchild of six-time Mexican Olympic skier and German Prince Hubertus von Hohenlohe.
Two official pictures from the calendar show Chamoun lounging in the snow; in one, she wears most of her clothes while in the other photo a ski covers her bare breasts. Chamoun said the photos were taken three years ago, and the images in the final calendar were objectively less explicit than the behind-the-scenes footage in which Chamoun and Njeim’s chests are fully exposed.
“The photos of the photoshoot are not like the actual images that are now circulating on the net. The video and photos that you are now seeing are part of the making of, the preparation, it wasn’t supposed to go public,” she said on her Facebook page.
In Sochi, Chamoun will compete in the women’s slalom ski competition on Feb. 21 and women’s giant slalom on Feb. 18. In her message Tuesday, Chamoun implored Lebanese to stop spreading the images so that she could focus on the races.
“Now that I’m at the Olympic Games, these photos that I never saw before are being shared. It is sad. All I can ask to each of you who saw this, is to stop spreading it, it will really help me focusing on what is really important now: my trainings and race,” she said.
Chamoun’s response received an outpouring of support from Lebanese – nearly 900 comments by Tuesday afternoon – wishing her luck and telling the athlete not to apologize. By Tuesday evening, the number of fans who “liked” Chamoun’s official page had quadrupled to more than 12,000.
“Back to work. Stay principled, #Lebanon. #JackieChamoun is not a problem; domestic violence, sexual harassment, and car bombs ARE problems,” read a tweet by user Kareemvots, one of many posts on Twitter supporting Chamoun.
The government, however, took a harder line against Chamoun. Caretaker Sports and Youth Minister Faisal Karami Tuesday asked the head of Lebanon’s Olympic Committee to file the “necessary inquiries” into the incident, according to the country’s National News Agency.
“[Caretaker] Youth and Sports Minister Faisal Karami, during a call with the head of the Lebanese Olympic Committee Jean Hammam, asked that the necessary investigation be launched ... as soon as possible in order to the take the required steps to [avoid] harming Lebanon’s reputation and international participation,” the NNA said.
The Lebanese Olympic Committee responded to Karami’s request Tuesday by strongly condemning Chamoun’s photo shoot but decided not to pull the Olympian from the 2014 Winter Games.
“In line with the Olympic laws not to pull any athlete from Olympic Games, especially since the [incident] did not occur during the preparations or the participation period in the Winter Olympic Games and [occurred] without the knowledge of the Lebanese Olympic Committee, the committee decided to keep her in the current Olympic Games,” the committee said in a statement. But Chamoun’s participation in future Olympic Games is now at the mercy of the committee and its investigation.
In contrast to scandalized local media, international coverage of the calendar release has been far more positive. Von Hohenlohe told one British media outlet that the calendar makers were actually criticized for not showing enough flesh.
In an interview that appeared on a website for American TV network NBC before the story spiraled into scandal, Chamoun seemed prepared to receive some flak for the shoot.
“When I started my job, for example, people when they search for me on the Web sometimes they can see these pictures directly, so you think maybe it’s not the best thing, not the best image you can give someone of you,” she told NBCOlympics.com. “But, I don’t really care, though. I really enjoyed it and I don’t regret it. I like these photos.”