How the Winter Olympics just shot itself in the halfpipe

A general view of the halfpipe at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games, at Phoenix Snow Park in PyeongChang, South Korea, Saturday, February 10, 2018. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

There is always one. Every Olympics. In 2000 it was Eric “the eel” Moussambani the swimmer from Equatorial Guinea who set the slowest 100 metre time in history and almost drowned (hardly) in the process. In PyeongChang it’s the, ahem, halfpipe skier from Hungary who, together with the IOC qualifying system, made a mockery of the elite athletes who fought the world’s best to make it into the competition.

Put simply, the USA born and bred halfpipe skier, Elizabeth Marian Swaney, went head to head with Sochi Olympics and Aspen X Games gold medalist Maddie Bowman, X Games silver Brita Sigourney, Sochi silver medalist Devin Logan and their elite halfpipe friends.

Now, I’m all for giving people a go, that’s what the World Cup circuit is for, to build yourself up to a podium and eventual Olympic competition but, really? Swaney qualified for Hungary thanks to a maternal grandmother from the country. She spent time on the World Cup circuit to secure the amount of points required to give Hungary a quota position in freestyle and she became an Olympian.

Then she did this. A series of side to side ski turns down the halfpipe that even I could do (I can’t post the video here due to News Access Rules but if you click on the link you’ll see it, and you must see it). No grabs, not really any air, no spins, no degree of difficulty at all. It was a joke and scored 30.00 (and no, she didn’t crash). Especially when she shared the pipe with other Americans from her place of birth and resident country.

Then, in post competition interviews she revealed her disappointment at not making it to the finals. Really, Marian? Have you even watched your fellow competitors? It’s like being genuinely surprised Pen Pineapple Apple Pen wasn’t nominated for a grammy.

Swaney has not cracked the 40 out of a possible 100 in her entire short lived halfpipe World Cup career. And yet. Here she is. Surprised. Uh, didn’t you compete for Hungary because you knew there was no way in hell you would qualify in the USA?

Competing for a country not of your birth is not new for those trying to make it to the Olympics. Dale Begg Smith turned his back on his Canadian citizenship for an Australian one and won Olympic medals in the process. But he was an elite athlete to start and up against other elite athletes.

Most of us tune into the Olympics to watch the world’s best stun us into submission with their mastery, we’re also taken in by the human stories of disappointment and shattered dreams. Admittedly Swaney has clearly ‘unknowingly’ provided us with comedy gold but it has also made a mockery of the Olympic qualifying system.

As excited as Tongan Pita Taufatofua was to represent his country in cross country skiing, I’m pretty sure he held no delusions that he would podium, let alone make top 12, the number required for the halfpipe ski final.

Even snowboarder Ester Ladecka who won surprise gold, on ‘borrowed skis’ (hand me downs from Mikaela Shiffrin), in the Super G alpine ski race has an elite competition background as a World Champion parallel giant snowboarder and was already 43rd in the world in Super G World Cup skiing (the leaderboard ranks up to 129).

I guess what annoys me about it, is the spot that others could have taken, others who have more talent, more skill, more commitment to improving that skill. But that, again, is where the World Cup circuit shines. The Olympics is about all nations competing and sending their ‘best’ regardless of genuine skill.

I can’t help feeling, on this occasion, Olympians and Olympic viewers, that we’ve been had.

Post script: 

I love halfpipe ski and I love females skiing and snowboarding in high level competition. But this isn’t an Eddie the Eagle or Eric the Eel feel good story, we love all of the skiers who competed for their country knowing they are the best their country has but won’t make a podium.

This is not that case, this is someone who comes from a privileged background, who simply could not get in to the team in the USA due to the team in the USA having real elite level skills. If she was from Hungary and went to the games it would be a different story akin to Eric the Eel and Eddie the Eagle. I think this has made a mockery of both the system and halfpipe skiing but it certainly took guts to do on a world stage. It will no doubt make a great movie, though, and at least now everyone knows about halfpipe skiing.

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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.

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