A Serbian volleyball player has been suspended for two matches after she stretched her eyelids apart during an international competition against Thailand, sparking outrage for the derogatory gesture widely used to mock people of Asian descent.
Player Sanja Djurdjevic violated the FIVB Volleyball Nations League’s disciplinary rules “following a gesture” on June 1 during the match in Italy, according to a statement on Tuesday announcing the decision of an independent body responsible for sanctions within the sport. Serbia’s volleyball federation was also fined the equivalent of $22,000, which FIVB will give to advocacy groups.
“The FIVB will donate the fine to a cause dedicated to tackling discriminatory behavior and/or to find educational programmes on cultural sensitivity for the global Volleyball Family,” the statement said.
Screenshots and clips of the gesture went viral earlier this month and thousands signed a Change.org petition calling for accountability. The uproar comes during a documented rise in anti-Asian racism and attacks in the United States and European nations during the pandemic.
“I am aware of my mistake and I immediately after the match apologized to the whole Thailand team,” Djurdjevic said in two Instagram posts immediately following the June 1 incident. The posts also featured a photo of teammates from both countries posing together after the match. “I only wanted to address my teammates with the message: ‘now, we will start playing defense like them’, I didn’t mean to disrespect anyone.”
She said the gesture was “unfortunate,” “not so smart,” and apologized to “all people all over the world who are offended by this.” Djurdjevic also thanked the Thai team for understanding, a reference to a magnanimous video filmed by one of the players as a show of reconciliation.
Djurdjevic has since deactivated her Instagram account. The Volleyball Federation of Serbia also previously apologized to Thailand’s team, but appealed to critics to not “blow this out of proportion” and called it a simple misunderstanding.
It did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the fine and Djurdjevic’s suspension.
As many observers pointed out, this wasn’t the first time the Serbian women’s team has been called out for making the gesture. The whole squad did it in a team photo during the 2018 FIVB Women’s World Championship in Japan.