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.