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Elizabeth Swaney and the Olympic Spirit

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Elizabeth Swaney competes at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Photo: USA Today Sports Images

In case you happened to be watching an Olympic event called Halfpipe Skiing you might have witnessed the run of Hungarian athlete Elizabeth Swaney. I didn’t but I read about it later and watched her run on video. The article I read, by Chris Chase of Olympic Wire, was more than a little derisive of Swaney and ended with the line of, “So much for the Olympic Spirit.” I have a different take.

The story is quite interesting. Swaney, a United States citizen, found a sport in which there are not many competitors. She learned enough to be able to navigate the halfpipe on her skis and while she cannot do much of any tricks she does manage to stay on her feet. She travels the world entering various events and generally finishing near the bottom although often defeating opponents who crash. She found a country that doesn’t have many, if any, competitors in the event and was allowed to represent it. By competing in all these tournaments, she accumulates points and eventually earned enough to qualify for the Olympics.

Chase believes Swaney made a mockery of the Olympics. I would suggest she made a mockery of what the Olympics has become but is a shining example of what they should be. When envisioned, the Modern Olympics was meant to be a showcase for amateur athletes and place where politics could be set aside and people could enjoy competition for the sake of playing the game. The Olympic Creed says it all: The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle.

I need not expound on the idea the Olympics has become entirely commercial. It generates enormous sums of money for corrupt members of the Olympic Committees, equally compromised politicians, and contractors in the countries they are held. This money largely comes from taxpayers. The athletes are virtually all professionals. Their training, coaching, equipment, and travel expenses are paid by national Olympic Committees and corporate and private sponsors. Many participate in organized schemes to increase athletic performance using various substances.

When you watch Shaun White and his amazing feats you must be aware of the enormous amounts of money and effort required to achieve such things. No mere amateur, taking time off from a non-athletic profession, paying for their own equipment, travel, and entry fees; can possibly hope to finish anywhere near the top of even the least of the Olympic Competitions. Frankly, it’s almost a miracle Swaney was able to compete at all. I argue she is the only true amateur at the games.

The change for all this came when the Eastern European countries under the Soviet Bloc became state-sponsored, full-time amateur athletes. If the other nations hoped to compete with this national juggernaut they had to copy it in form and function. That’s fine. I’m not complaining. I love professional sports. The Olympics and the various World Championships are now nothing more or less than those.

Still, for me at least, watching Swaney make her way slowly and unspectacularly down the halfpipe was about the only thing at these games that brought the Olympic Creed to mind.

By Tom Liberman

Tom Liberman is a regular fellow from St. Louis, Mo., who enjoys spending time with his wonderful family and great friends. He writes Sword and Sorcery fantasy novels in his spare time.

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