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Sochi 2014: Skier Jacky Chamoun's topless photos cause stir in Lebanon

By Matt Majendie and Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN
February 13, 2014 -- Updated 2319 GMT (0719 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Supporters rally to skier Chamoun's defense, pose topless in solidarity
  • The athlete apologizes on Facebook over topless photos and video
  • Photos taken for ski calendar three years ago
  • Lebanese author Joumana Haddad says saga has been blown out of proportion

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(CNN) -- Like most skiers in Sochi, Jacky Chamoun had hoped to cause a stir on the slopes rather than off them.

But the Lebanese athlete, who is set to compete in the slalom and giant slalom at the Winter Olympics, has been forced to apologize after photos and a video of her topless from a fashion shoot dating back three years ago surfaced.

The footage, part of a behind-the-scenes look at her posing for an old Austrian skiing calendar, has caused a stir in the Arab nation.

Writing on her Facebook page, the 22-year-old admitted being photographed "with other professional athletes" and pointed out that the pictures for the calendar are different from those "now circulating on the net."

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"The video and photos that you are now seeing are part of the making of the preparation, it wasn't supposed to go public," Chamoun said.

The skier added: "Anyways, 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 criticize this.

"Now that I'm at the Olympic Games, these photos that I never before saw are being shared. It is sad."

Chamoun then appealed for people "to stop spreading this."

"It will really help my focus on what is really important now: my training and race," she said.

Read: Sochi 2014 live coverage

Lebanon minister orders investigation

While the Lebanese Olympic Committee will not send her home from Sochi, caretaker Youth and Sports Minister Faisal Karami ordered the committee "to carry out the necessary investigation in a way that does not affect Lebanon's reputation."

"My main concern was not to affect Lebanon's participation in the Sochi Olympics," Karami told CNN.

"The Lebanese Olympic Committee held a meeting and concluded that this will not affect Lebanon's participation in Sochi, and that the matter according to the International Olympic Committee, is a matter of personal freedoms."

Lebanon is thought to be one of the most socially liberal Arab states.

A paper from the Middle Eastern Values Study at the University of Michigan at the end of last year showed that of the representatives from seven different Arab nations, those from Lebanon had the strongest support for no head covering at all -- 52% of men and 45% of women.

'We are not a conservative country'

In Lebanon, many rallied to Chamoun's defense, insisting the athlete was helping rather than hindering people's perceptions of the country.

"I thank her for giving, actually, a more positive image of Lebanon in a period where all we see on TV, on international news are bombings, explosions, kidnappings," explained Lea Baroudi, head of the activist group MARCH Lebanon.

Blogger Gio Raidy echoed that sentiment, saying, "Personally I think this is the perfect image of Lebanon. It's the Lebanon which we're used to -- the liberal Lebanon, the open-minded one, where people are comfortable with their skin"

"We are not a conservative country," added Baroudi. "We are a country where there are conservative people and there are liberal people and that's what's nice about Lebanon. So yes, I'm ashamed of people's reactions and outrage in this situation."

Many took to social media, such as going to the "I Am Not Naked" Facebook page urging Chamoun's supporters to strip in solidarity with her.

In just over 24 hours, the page garnered close to 12,000 likes. Organizers of the campaign even set up a photo shoot in Beirut, where Twitter hashtags like #StripForJackie started trending.

"The point isn't to be topless," said Leticia Haddad, a Lebanese University student. "It isn't to show skin or anything else. It's more to spread the word that it's OK to be ourselves. It's OK to show a bit of skin. It's OK. It doesn't affect our morals."

Claims of hypocrisy

So far, dozens of people, including Haddad, have posed in various states of undress -- a creative and humorous way of protesting what happened to Chamoun.

For organizers, getting undressed was an essential part of the exercises -- although it wasn't necessarily the point.

"We got naked to get your attention," said Mohamad Abdouni, with FIM2P Magazine. "And once we did get your attention, we're telling you that we shouldn't have in the first place. Us getting naked should not grab this much attention -- it's something very silly in light of what's going on around us."

Many of Chamoun's supporters feel politicians in Lebanon should concern themselves with more pressing problems, such as suicide bombings, sectarian tensions, water shortages and the economy.

Such problems, they say, make racy photos seem relatively minor by comparison.

Lebanese author and journalist Joumana Haddad argued the entire saga has been blown out of proportion.

"It is outrageous and irritating because there's so much hypocrisy," said Haddad.

"To hear people say this is ruining the image of Lebanon is rubbish. We are a country without a government; we are dysfunctional."

Added Haddad, "There is violence and human rights and womens' rights violations happening here every day and that doesn't get 10% of the attention this so-called scandal has gotten from people."

For now, many Lebanese just want a distraction they can be proud of, like witnessing the athletic feats of a fellow citizen.

Photographer Jack Seikaly was among those who felt that one of the best things he could to support her was stripping down.

"She's doing her best as a Lebanese athlete representing her country," explained Seikaly. "And I don't know, I think I'm doing my part by showing my support by doing this."

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