Ethical Dilemma: When is it wrong to compete in the Olympics?

Elizabeth Marian Swaney, of Hungary, runs the course during the women's halfpipe qualifying at Phoenix Snow Park at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
AP Photo/Kin Cheung
Elizabeth Swaney runs the course during the women’s halfpipe qualifying at Phoenix Snow Park during the 2018 Winter Olympics on Feb. 19.

Elizabeth Swaney isn’t a world-class freestyle skier. Yet there she was, cruising dutifully down the halfpipe in PyeongChang alongside Olympic greats. The American-born entrant competed for Hungary, landing a spot on that country’s squad by exploiting the sport’s points system. She didn’t medal, but she did rack up a mountain of vitriol and mockery online. Comparisions came quick with Pita Taufatofua, the shirtless Tongan taekwondo-er, who finished 114th out of 116 cross-country skiers and Mexican Germán Madrazo, who finished dead last. Cheap trick or legit competition? Here are two views:

Carol Hay, philosophy professor at UMass Lowell: “It’s worth noticing how differently the court of public opinion treats these athletes: Madrazo and Taufatofua are held up as heartwarming examples of scrappy endurance in the face of overwhelming odds, while Swaney is tarred as manipulative and pathetic. Plenty of past Olympic Games have had incompetent media darlings (Eddie the Eagle in 1998, the Jamaican bobsled team in 1988) but there hasn’t been a single woman permitted to occupy this role. Given how poorly we view ambitious women in general, this probably shouldn’t surprise us. Participants who attempt to compete despite being manifestly unqualified are essentially making a public relations gamble. But as Swaney demonstrates, Machiavellianism in women just doesn’t sell.”

Frank Shorr, director of the Sports Institute at Boston University: “As a fan of the Olympics growing up, I thought the only thing better than watching both the Summer and Winter Games was months later seeing Bud Greenspan’s extraordinary documentaries about them. Greenspan weaved the tales of the struggle. The struggle to get there, the struggle to compete. Those stories were rarely about the gold medalists. Look, we all want to be winners, but that just isn’t possible. The Games have standards, and that ought to be good enough. If we are truly going to ‘bring the world together,’ we need these athletes, these stories, if for nothing else but to remind us that sometimes trying is more important than winning. Greenspan would be proud.”


In an informal poll on Twitter by @GlobeIdeas, most people blamed the Olympic rules that allowed Swaney to compete. “Not her fault. Fix the rules,” said 75 percent of respondents. Only 25 percent chose “Has she no shame?”