By CARA COOPERThere was a movie that came out a couple of years ago called “Eddie the Eagle,” based on the true story of British ski jumper Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards.
Basically, Edwards was a dorky kid who had one dream – making it to the Olympics.
He tried a bunch of different things until he found ski jumping, the sport he eventually did in the Olympics in 1988. He came in last, but became a sensation nonetheless.
It’s a really good movie and a nice story of setting goals and persevering to reach that goal.
Sound familiar? It’s very similar to the movie “Cool Runnings” about the first Jamaican Olympic bobsled team.
Every time the Olympics come around, there’s at least a dozen real life stories of this exact same scenario. Just this week we saw Pita Taufatofua, also known as “the-greased-up-shirtless-Tongan-guy” who made headlines during the Rio Games two years ago for walking shirtless at the Opening Ceremonies and making millions of women around the world swoon.
Taufatofua is back at the PyeongChang Games as a cross country skier. He finished 114th out of 116 skiers. But he finished a grueling 15km race and put in the work to qualify for the race in the first place. That’s quite an accomplishment for someone who had never even been on skis until three months ago, having trained over a year on roller skates.
Ultimately, he did it because he wanted to be the first athlete from Tonga to compete in both the Summer and Winter Olympics, and prove to kids that it was possible.
Stories like this are great. That’s what the Olympics are all about. Enduring hardship, working hard, and for most people just being excited to compete and call yourself an Olympian. With so much emphasis put on medal counts and winning, it’s easy to forget that probably 75 percent of Olympians go knowing they have no chance of a medal. Simply making to the Games is the biggest accomplishment imaginable.
Which is why another story that came out Monday is so disappointing.
Elizabeth Swaney became an internet sensation in the women’s ski halfpipe. Not for her spins or big air. She didn’t invent some new trick people will be trying to replicate for years. Swaney didn’t do any tricks at all.
In Swaney’s qualifying runs, she simply went back and forth on the halfpipe. That’s it. The poor announcer tried to make it as interesting as possible, saying she threw in an “alley oop,” but let’s be honest, she could barely even make it over the lip.
It was maddening.
Swaney, who is from Oakland, California, works in Silicon Valley and has a graduate degree from Harvard, didn’t compete as an American. Because the halfpipe skiers from the U.S. actually, you know, do tricks. And work on their craft.
Women’s halfpipe allows for 24 competitors in the Olympics, but no more than four from a given country. So Swaney competed for Hungary, getting the chance to compete for another country through a loophole that allowed it because that’s where her grandparents were born. That’s after she previously tried to compete as a Venezuelan.
There were a ton of loopholes Swaney took advantage of to get to the Olympics. Patrick Redford, writing for the website Deadspin, summed up her qualifying best:
“In order to qualify, Swaney needed to finish within the top 30 at a few World Cup skiing events. After ‘competing’ in halfpipe contests around the world, Swaney finally qualified in December, when she went to a Chinese event while the top skiers in the world were at a more prestigious event in Colorado. She finished 13th out of 15, which has nothing to do with her actually besting anyone, since, once again, she doesn’t even do any tricks. Other people fell or certain events simply featured fewer than 30 competitors, which let her sneak in. That’s her gameplan: show up and stay upright.”
There’s nothing wrong with athletes like Taufatofua or Eddie the Eagle or any bobsled or skeleton rider from a country that never sees snow who work hard, barely make it the Olympics, finish close to last but revel in their simply being an Olympian. The difference is those people worked hard. Extremely hard. They wanted to compete, not simply go across a halfpipe a couple of times for a joyride.
Yes, the Olympics allowed this to happen, as did the International Ski Federation, and you can guarantee rules will be changed for the next Games, but just because there’s ways to get around rules doesn’t mean you should.
Swaney ultimately wrote a check into become an Olympian. And then made a mockery of the event by not even trying. While other competitors were spending their time on skis and in the gym and in the video room trying to perfect their runs and be the best possible athlete they could, Swaney was spending time looking up loopholes and ways to game the system.
Yes, many will say “it’s just a game, just sports, don’t take it so seriously” but for thousands of athletes around the world making the Olympics is the most serious thing in their life. They live with one singular goal of seeing those rings, and doing whatever it takes to get there. I can’t imagine how it must feel for someone who spent their life on skis, who didn’t make this Olympics and has to wait another four years to see that goal reached watch Swaney go back and forth on a halfpipe like a 12-year-old.