Column: Olympics should be reserved for the best athletes
By PAUL NEWBERRY, AP Sports Columnist
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Liz Swaney deserves kudos for dedication.
And she had enough sense not to attempt anything on the halfpipe — and we mean anything — that might’ve resulted in a serious injury.
She had no business competing in the Olympics.
The same can be said for all those skiers representing snow-challenged countries such as the Philippines, Eritrea and Mexico.
Plucky underdogs like Eddie the Eagle, a bespectacled daredevil flinging himself off the ski jump, and Eric the Eel, flailing desperately to stay above water at the Olympic pool, aren’t that charming anymore.
The games can do without them.
Swaney reignited the debate over just what it should take to be an Olympian with her laughable, trick-free performance in women’s halfpipe skiing at the Pyeongchang Olympics .
In a sport that’s supposed to feature all sorts of death-defying flips and spins on a cylinder-like course, Swaney turned in a leisurely run down the hill , gently rocking back and forth, doing nothing more than easing up to the edges before turning the other way.
Swaney was thrilled to simply make it to the bottom. The crowd looked on in stunned silence, no doubt wondering if they’d made a wrong turn on the way to the course and wound up at the bunny slope, watching some novice learn to ski.
Her performance sparked much-deserved outrage and derision on social media.
“It’s not some adult Disney world where you go to take selfies,” one person wrote on Swaney’s Instagram account. “The Olympics are a showcase of the BEST athletes in the world and Swaney made a mockery of that. She made a mockery of people’s life work. She made a mockery of halfpipe skiing in general. She did this so she could flaunt the title of Olympian. Unbelievable.”
While Swaney’s case is extreme — and should immediately lead to reforms that prevent it from happening again — she’s hardly alone in lacking the world-class credentials that most Olympians are expected to have.
At least two North Koreans skiers who finished a combined 98 seconds behind the gold medalist in men’s giant slalom were part of a last-minute delegation intended to bring a bit of reconciliation to this divided land.
No such justification could be made for the skier who finished just ahead of them, 17-year-old American Charles Flaherty, competing for Puerto Rico and more than 38 seconds behind the winner.
He took up skiing after watching the 2014 Sochi Games. Four years later, he was able to represent Puerto Rico — where his family moved when he was 9 — at the Winter Olympics.
It should be harder than that to get here.
Of course, Flaherty is a grizzled veteran at his craft compared to German Madrazo .
The 43-year-old Mexican took up cross-country skiing only a year ago, which was somehow enough time to land a spot in Pyeongchang. Not surprisingly, he crossed the line last among the 116 competitors who finished the 15-kilometer event — nearly 26 minutes behind the winner.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re 43 years old and it doesn’t if there is no snow in Mexico and it doesn’t matter if you don’t have the money to pursue the sport,” Madrazo said. “What matters is that if you want to do it, you can do it.”
That might be a heart-warming sentiment, but imagine being one of those worthy athletes stuck watching from home, knocked out of the games through legitimate qualifying methods.
The International Olympic Committee, along with the governing bodies, always makes the claim that opening up spots to under-qualified athletes such as Flaherty and Madrazo might spark interest in countries that have little to no winter sports heritage.
“It is important that the Olympics encourage and embrace a truly international field of athletes and that a globally diverse cross section of athletes has the opportunity to compete on a major stage,” said Jenny Wiedeke of the International Ski Federation.
But rest assured: Puerto Ricans will never have any interest in Alpine skiing; Mexico is not about to become a cross-country skiing hotbed.
These athletes — quite often the only member of their country’s Olympic team — seem to serve mainly as a conduit for well-connected suits to land an all-expenses-paid trip to the Olympics.
If you had actually looked past shirtless, oiled-up Pita Taufatofua when he marched into the stadium during the frigid opening ceremony as Tonga’s lone athlete at the Pyeongchang Games, you would’ve seen at least three well-bundled officials from the South Pacific island following behind him.
Taufatofua finished 114th in the 15K, beating out only Madrazo and Colombia’s Sebastian Uprimny.
“Everyone was at the front racing to come first,” Taufatofua said. “We were racing not to come last.”
While you can make a strong argument that athletes such as Taufatofua and Madrazo, not to mention the bobsled team from Nigeria following in the tracks left by the Jamaicans, bring some much-needed diversity to these largely white games, the same cannot be said of Swaney.
The Californian simply scammed a hugely flawed system, turning up at enough events to gain an Olympic spot by doing nothing more than not falling. She had no chance of qualifying for the U.S. team but was able to represent Hungary because her grandparents are from there.
“I still want to inspire people to get involved with athletics or a new sport or a new challenge at any age in life,” the 33-year-old said.
This wasn’t the way to do it.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry
For more AP Olympic coverage: https://www.wintergames.ap.org