Skier Elizabeth Swaney Used a Loophole to Qualify for the Olympics and Tarnished the Event

2018 Winter Olympics

Resourcefulness and perseverance in the pursuit of what you want is usually admirable. Usually. For me, the latest exception to that is skier Elizabeth Swaney, an athlete who participated in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Swaney, a 33-year-old American who competed on Hungary’s Winter Olympics Team, put in what experts are calling a “mediocre” athletic performance in the women’s freestyle skiing halfpipe final. And the mediocrity isn’t because Swaney fell or had an equipment mishap. It appears to be all she had to offer in the Olympics — in an event feted for featuring top-flight athletes from around the world. It’s where the elite meet to compete, on a whole different level.

She finished last in the qualifying rounds in the women’s freestyle skiing halfpipe final held Feb. 19. It was clear to see why. While other skiers in this event were doing daring, wow-factor feats and tricks, Swaney mostly just skied up the pipe’s side. At one point, she did a small hop while turning around. And on her first ski run, she skied backwards out of the pipe. That’s about it. Oh, and she didn’t fall.

My problem isn’t how Swaney performed in the Olympics. We’ve all failed at something, or have not measured up to our peers, at least once in our lives. I count myself in that “we.” My problem is how she got to the Olympics … and I don’t mean her mode of transportation.

In a nutshell, Swaney found a loophole and worked it to her advantage. We normally cheer for things like that because loopholes tend to be used against the good guys and gals. I reserve my cheers for those who overcome challenges to get to a place where they deserve to be but are baselessly excluded.

The Washington Post article, titled “How a Skier Managed to Compete at the Olympics Despite Not Being Very Good,” offers a good explanation of what Swaney did to get to the one of the world’s biggest stages for premier athletes.

Here are the basics: Swaney — who was born and raised in America — wanted to make it to the 2018 Winter Olympics. The U.S. could only send four competitors, and Swaney would have had to outshine many top-notch skiers. To be clear, when Swaney started competing in halfpipe events in 2013 she was representing Venezuela. In 2016, she switched to Hungary, where Swaney said she has heritage through her maternal grandparents, according to the Washington Post article.

Swaney reportedly did the minimum required to qualify for this Winter Olympics. That minimum included finishing in the top 30 skiers in World Cup events and racking up enough International Ski Federation (also known as FIS) points. A veteran FIS judge was quoted by the Denver Post newspaper article as saying that Swaney would compete in World Cups in which there were fewer than 30 competitors. With that, plus basic skiing abilities and remaining upright while competing, making the top 30 was simple for Swaney.

The Denver Post also reported: “At last December’s World Cup in China, when most of the world’s top skiers were competing in the Grand Prix at Copper Mountain and Dew Tour at Breckenridge, Swaney finished 13 out of 15 competitors, her best career finish.”

After her basic and lackluster performance in PyeongChang at the 2018 Winter Olympics, Swaney was quoted in that same Denver Post article as saying: “I want to inspire others in Hungary and the world to become involved in freestyle skiing. Maybe perhaps I’m the bridge to those who want to get started in the life of freestyle skiing and I want to show people that, yeah, it’s possible to get involved in freestyle skiing through a variety of backgrounds.”

That sounds good. But, by working the system to your advantage and doing the minimum to get to a place where you don’t belong, what else are you inspiring?

I admire her determination. And okay, so who hasn’t wanted to get, or actually attempted to get, into an exclusive party, club or something like that — even though you knew you didn’t belong there? But to gain access to a party or club, you probably don’t have to qualify by having a high-level of athletic talent coupled with hard work, and wins over formidable competitors. For the Olympics you do. Or maybe I’m naive to think so.

Yes, Swaney qualified to be on Hungary’s Olympic team. But in terms of her talent, can Swaney — an adult with a graduate degree from Harvard, as reported by the Denver Post — honestly say she deserved to be in the Olympics, a premier event known for showcasing the world’s best-of-the-best in sports? Does Swaney have any self-awareness regarding her skiing talent or does she have delusions of how good she really is?

I’m thinking she just wanted to be in the Olympics. Plain and simple. She made it there without causing any bodily harm to anyone, or stealing a spot that could’ve gone to someone with Olympic-caliber ski skills. She found a way to qualify.

So … what’s the harm, you ask?

It’s another small but visible dilution of the Olympics’ longstanding reputation as being the event where the very best, qualified athletes compete in good faith, good spirit, and goodwill. If I’m right about the effect Swaney has had, then it’s worth admitting that, sadly, she’s not the first to dilute the good faith, good spirit, and goodwill that the Olympics embody. And, she won’t be the last.

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