PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — How you feel about Elizabeth Swaney likely depends upon what you believe the Olympics should be and who should be in them. If you feel that the Games should be reserved for the planet’s best athletes then you probably think that Swaney is a country-shopper who gamed the system to collect a ticket that she didn’t deserve.
If you feel that the Olympics should be open to anyone from anywhere who has the determination to find her way to the starting line then you probably think that Swaney is a persistent plugger who has every right to chase her dreams as long as she’s drug-free and meets the standard.
Swaney, of course, is the American freestyle halfpipe skier who competes for Hungary and who finished dead last in this week’s qualifying round with a routine that was so elementary as to be laughable. Whether she belonged here is debatable. But what is beyond doubt is that the 33-year-old Harvard grad from Oakland played by the rules and earned her way here.
“I’m a super open-minded person so I guess this girl just wanted to be part of the Olympics, as some others did in Alpine skiing from the bibs 50 to 80,” said French silver medalist Marie Martinod. “They can’t ski, really, but they are here and they are part of the Games. That is why the Olympics are so special. It’s because there are so many different countries.”
Were the Winter Games limited to the best of the best, the athletes would be predominantly from Europe and North America, almost all of them white.
“The Olympic Games are about universality and reaching out across the world,” said IOC spokesman Mark Adams. “They also are about elite sport. The two can go together. We saw a really good case there. She has a great story to tell, which everyone appreciates.”
The Nigerian women’s bobsled team probably didn’t belong here, either. They finished dead last, more than seven seconds behind the German victors and nearly four seconds behind their nearest competitor. But they were celebrated as pathbreakers in a sport that never had had an African entrant.
Seun Adigun was born on the North Side of Chicago, Akuoma Omeoga in St. Paul. They ran college track for Houston and Minnesota. But their parents are native Nigerians so they’re dual citizens and eligible for the Games.
The South Korean team includes 19 naturalized citizens, including former Bruins farmhand Matt Dalton and Boston-born pairs skater Alex Gamelin. Four years ago Russia gave passports to American snowboarder Vic Wild and Korean short-track speedskater Victor Ahn. They won a combined five gold medals for their adopted Motherland.
Swaney, who was born in the States, had competed in skeleton for Venezuela, where her mother was born. Her grandparents are Hungarians. That gave her three roads to Olympus and she understandably took the easiest one in a sport that was only added to the Olympic program four years ago and has fewer than three dozen world-class competitors.
But Swaney also qualified by competing in last year’s world championships and in all five of this season’s World Cups, traveling to China and New Zealand to pick up the necessary points.
“We all know Elizabeth,” said Canadian gold medalist Cassie Sharpe. “She’s put in the time to be at these events. She made the cut. She deserves to be here as much as anybody else.”
Swaney may be a country-shopper but she had to go through a qualifying process to get here, unlike the Olympic “tourists” who turned up three decades ago. “Eddie The Eagle” Edwards was a British plasterer who lived at a Finnish mental hospital to save money while he was training. He finished last in both jumping events at Calgary, but caught the world’s fancy.
So did the Jamaican bobsled team, which crashed in its debut. They hadn’t even seen a sled until six months before the 1988 Games and driver Dudley Stokes was surprised to find that the sled had to be steered.
“I didn’t think you had to do anything,” he said. “I thought it was like a roller-coaster ride.”
The Eagle and the Cool Runnings boyz appealed to the George Plimpton in those of us who’ve had five-ringed fantasies. But they also attracted subtropical thrill-seekers who had no business around a Winter Games. A Latin American skier who’d never been on a bunny hill turned up four years later in Albertville, promising officials that he’d take a week of downhill lessons in Val d’Isere.
So the IOC finally adopted the “Eddie The Eagle” rule that required everyone to qualify in some fashion. The bar was low enough in some sports that a handful of World Cup points scraped together here and there were sufficient.
That’s how Argentine luger Ruben “Speedy” Gonzalez became the first Olympian to compete in four Games in different decades.
“I needed a sport with lots of broken bones because I knew there would be quitters and I never quit,” said Gonzalez, who’d played soccer for Houston Baptist and was 47 when he slid in 2010. “I’ll be the last man standing.”
Gonzalez called it a career after Vancouver where Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed during a training accident on the scary Whistler track. The Winter Games, which are about breakneck speeds on snow and ice, are not for “tourists.”
But the IOC says it isn’t going to keep them out as long as they’re up to whatever mark is established.
“There is a proper qualification system and we will keep that,” Adams said. “But we also need to leave the door open to universality. That is what separates this event from a normal sporting event.”John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.