Hands off our winter athletes, James Magnussen

Scotty James of Australia gestures on the podium after winning the bronze medal in the Men's Snowboard Halfpipe Final, at Phoenix Snow Park during the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games, in PyeongChang, South Korea, Wednesday, February 14, 2018. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

Let’s be clear. Winter Olympians risk death daily, Olympic swimmers do not.

When Scotty James gains four meters of air over the hard packed lip of a super pipe, Lydia Lassila rotates her body at sixty kilometer speeds at twenty meters above a thirty five degree landing and Alex Chumpy Pullin and Jarryd Hughes fight it out with four others on a snowboard while gaining four stories of ‘air’ on an obstacle course, they are doing so knowing the deathly consequences of one mistake.

Those consequences claimed the life of Canadian Sarah Burke in halpipe ski training in Park City in 2012, they took the life of Nodar Kumaritashvili in the Luge at Vancouver in 2010 and tragically ended a 17 year old’s life (Max Burkhart) way too soon at Lake Louise in a Nor Am race late last year. These lives lost are just a handful among many in the world of high level winter sports where death mingles with traumatic head and spinal chord injuries sustained by those chasing winter medal dreams.

All this puts Olympic and World Champion swimmer, James Magnussen’s recent comments in perspective. The Olympic silver and bronze medal swimmer went on the record this week complaining that Australians celebration of Scotty James bronze medal in the halfpipe is in stark contrast to what would have happened if he was a “swimmer going into that event as the world champion and expected to win, and he got bronze.”

I get that he was dissing the coverage of the medal, not the medal itself, but still. There’s a big difference between putting your actual life on the line to win any medal color for Australia and swimming up and down a black line in no danger of drowning. As for Magnussen’s comments about the “laid back, relaxed feel” of winter sports with “sponsors on board” and “advertising everywhere” versus the “super professionalism, super intense environment” of the summer Olympics, well, I invite Magnussen to be here, in PyeongChang, now.

The only advertising and sponsorship allowed here, thanks to the stringent restrictions of Rule 40, are those that have paid mega dollars to be associated with the Olympics. Try using anything other than a VISA (you can’t) or buying a drink that isn’t a Coca Cola within a venue. Yes, athletes can ski or snowboard on their brand of choice but so could marathon runners in Rio wear their choice of running shoe brands.

Australia isn’t a winter sport nation. Any medal achieved here comes at a great personal financial cost. The $1million of funding given by the Australian Olympic Committee to the Olympic Winter Institute of Australia for all snow sport disciplines (snowboarding, freestyle skiing, alpine, bobsled, ice skating and more) annually pails in comparison to the $38 million it cost to send just Australia’s swimmers to Rio. 

Magnussen revealed that swimmers competing for Australia at the Olympics are “there for a reason and that’s to win golds” with the inference that that pressure doesn’t exist for the winter athletes. Yet funding is so minimal and so tight in winter sports that athletes must prove worth with performance outcomes or lose the precious few pennies available for their training. No pennies, no training, no training, no competition results, no sponsors, no athletic life.

Scotty James was and is a great Olympic medal hope for Australia. The tears of release that flooded his cheeks after the event revealed the intense pressure he had been under from both himself, the media and the administration team of those funding dollars plus his high level sponsors.

He wanted gold and went on the record saying he was chasing it. He got bronze up against Shaun White and said “it felt like gold” for him. James can’t just go down to his local pool and train, Australia has no halfpipes, the sacrifices he makes for his sport involve months of training away from family in countries that do have a halfpipe and that costs money.

Ask the average Australian what boarder cross is and they won’t have a clue. Mention our Australian winter FIS World Champions over recent years – Laura Peel, Scotty James, Alex Pullin, Britteny Cox – and most Aussies would stare blankly. Every medal that Australia wins, regardless of colour, at a Winter Olympics, puts that sport on a mainstream stage for a millisecond and that helps bring more funding, more awareness, more progression in that sport of athlete choice.

Of course many would argue that the core winter sports of skiing and snowboarding are a rich person’s leisure pursuit (the cost of a one day lift pass at Australia’s ski resorts is in excess of AU$100) but the majority of athlete families I have met here are far from mega wealthy. Many, but not all, are fighting to make ends meet to support the talent of their children in sports where funding is minimal. Regular readers already know I am supportive of a means tested funding system for the athlete pathway to ensure that talent, not wealth, gets rewarded and that the joy of winter sports can be experienced by all.

The Olympics is the Olympics, no matter what season it is held. Australia likes to win, we love gold and often at the cost of the worth of an athlete who wins silver or bronze or doesn’t win at all.

Let’s not forget that Olympians are people. Magnussen hasn’t thrown himself down a mogul course on tiny skis but I bet he knows the feeling of winning and the feeling of defeat. I’m pretty sure many in Scotty James’ camp were thrilled when he entered the elite club of Winter Olympic medal winners from Australia. I’m also pretty sure his tears of relief and pride and happiness were mingled with some disappointment that the ultimate gold he was chasing was not his this year.

Highlighting a fellow athlete’s medal as ‘less than’ when the Australia camp is celebrating ‘more than’, is poor form, especially when that person risked life to win it.

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Rachael Oakes-Ash is the name behind @misssnowitall and the founder of SnowsBest.com. A long time travel and lifestyle journalist and ski writer, she's been published in ESPN, TIME, Wallpaper*, Action Asia, Inside Sport, Australian Financial Review, Emirates Open Skies, Conde Nast Traveler and more. She was the Fairfax snow blogger from 2007 to 2017, a former columnist for Mountainwatch and the Southern Hemisphere editor for OnTheSnow. Rachael is also a documentary producer, author, radio announcer and humorist.

20 COMMENTS

  1. So right Rachael!! Well said…and never forget the cash injection of $10 million to the Aussie swim team in an effort to buy medals cos the swimmers were going so badly….

  2. I don’t think James Mag meant anything against the winter athletes. If you remember, the guy was hammered after winning a silver (instead of the expected gold). He just makes a point that in swimming at least, anything less than gold is almost considered a failure…I’m sure he would have appreciated a positive response to his silver medal the same as Scotty. They (swimming aust) do get ridiculous funding, I agree with that. Sports funding in Australia is not always fairly spread that’s for sure.

  3. I can’t believe that James has said this…. Do I hear some level of dismay that we sport loving people may like to watch the winter sports as much or more than the swimmers? An athlete is just that, all of the athletes win or lose in all our sports work hard to get championship status and earn our respect irrespective of the medal. I thought that the boarder cross guy Who had his wrist strapped to compete in the mini final and came last (10 in the competition) deserved a gold for keeping on going with so much pain. My heart goes out to these guys who compete under huge financial and personal constraints.

  4. Shame on that magnussen guy and his narrow mindedness. He should travel with Scotty and see how difficult the comps really are. Was this guy even at the halfpipe event in person? Shame….
    Thank you for the enlightening article! And informing such nit wits!

  5. I so hope James M didn’t really mean what he said….athletes can be misquoted, let’s hope so. You know what James? Athletes who can perform the skills of the aerialists, the ice skaters, the snowboard slopestylers, the ice hockey players, the downhill racers, the slalom skiiers, the cross country skiers, mogul skiiers, boardercossers…etc. we’ll they’re the athletes who can make comment on performances at the Winter Olympics, not the odd swimmer who never puts his life in danger by diving in to water and following a little black line up and down for 50m at a time….agree? Horses for courses I’d have thought…..I swim too, and do ofen along with many other gym things, agree not at speed, but it’s not dangerous, ever. C’mon James Mag….all apologies will be accepted. Then, and only then, will this Melb2006 Commonwelath Games Ceremonies Assistant Stage Manager watch you do your stuff for our country soon like we are now for our athletes in Korea who are doing us proud!

  6. Great article MissSnowItAll. I’m SO proud of all our winter olympians. It’s so awesome that we are represented in so many disciplines given we have a comparatively tiny snow industry. We get to watch sports we never get to watch in real life in our own country but during the Winter Olympics we get to participate and cheer thanks to these amazing athletes who have mostly got themselves there, at great expense over many years, with very little government funding! Can we divert some funding from the primary school swimming program to building an Olympic size halfpipe somewhere in Australia? I want to see more laps of the halfpipe!

  7. Maybe, the “pressure doesn’t exist for the winter athletes” at the same level because the Olympic games are not the pinnacle of their sport, at least on the freestyle ski and snowboard side. The Olympics come around once every four years, but, although a lot of sponsorship dollars are riding on a good result at the games, they’ll never be as important in the snowboard world as the X Games, Dew Tour or US Open.

  8. Maybe James (Magnussen) should go against James (Scotty) in a halfpipe comp? Then Scotty could go against Magnussen in a 100m swimming race (assuming Magussen is still alive)?

    One condition: In the halfpipe, Magnussen must get at least 2m above the lip, and must do at least one twist and rotation, frontside and backside. In return, Scotty must dive in off the blocks in the swimming race and .swim proper freestyle.

  9. I think everyone should read the full James magnusson article before jumping to conclusions. Paraphrasing and misquoting is easy to do unfortunately

  10. I appreciate the talent, dedication and sheer hard work required to become an elite athlete ,no matter what the sport, and so was somewhat surprised by James’s comments. More than most, he should appreciate the achievements of our winter Olympians.
    While noting his later clarification on Twitter, if James still feels that some of the summer Olympians face higher expectations (e.g. some swimmers), maybe that is because some (only some) in the past have over-talked up their own expectations/medal chances before competing…only to fall well short of times they achieved in Australian championships only a few months earlier.

    Back to the winter Olympians. The events are exciting, the skills displayed in EVERY event are astounding, the courage they all show is extraordinary, and the grace they display whether as medal winners or not, is a wonderful example to all young, aspiring athletes.

    Loving the winter Olympics and all of our wonderful winter athletes.
    Time to get off the keyboard, and back to the TV.

  11. Not taking sides, but really James Magnussen? Football not swimming is the most watched Summer Olympic sport each Games, but I digress. How to get more talented people to try snow sports? First of all, the bane of all snow trips, entry into snow resorts. Over $100 a day to get into a national park during winter that my taxes pay for anyway. In summer its only $10-15 for entry to the same park? Most snow sports visitors arrive and leave their cars parked for the duration of their visit. That’s where we start first, entry cost parity. Then visitors can come and try some winter activities. If they wear Aldi snow gear or buy Aliexpress online gear, who cares. Currently in Canada and guess what it is not a rich man’s sport. Talent must be discovered and encourageed, be it in in Toorak, Double Bay, Broadmeadows or Parramatta.

  12. Thanks Vince. My guys are Ryde boys (close to Parra). Board for three days max per season. It is a life skill I want them to have . Not cheap at $200 per kid per day. Accom is camping. No way I could do it without Aldi. Not possible for me as a child.

  13. What an eloquent and accurate response to a spoilt brat who is more noteworthy for his antics out of the pool than he is in ( so professional). Athletes of all disciplines deserve respect and admiration regardless of success or failure, provided they are committed enough to put in the hard yards for their chosen sport.

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