American skier games the Olympic system to underwhelm at Pyeongchang

Elizabeth Swaney competes in the women's ski halfpipe qualifications
Elizabeth Swaney competes in the women's ski halfpipe qualifications Copyright REUTERS/Issei Kato
By Alice TideyMrav Noemi
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Hungary's Elizabeth Swaney competed in Pyeongchang's women half-pipe event on Tuesday, despite an obvious lack of talent. Instead, she got there through sheer perseverance — and by playing the Olympic system.


Elizabeth Swaney has always had one dream, to participate in the Olympics.

On Tuesday, she got to fulfill her dream, but talent had very little to do with it — hers is a story of perseverance and playing the Olympic system.

In the past four years, 33-year-old Swaney competed in about a dozen events around the globe — all at her own expense — to prepare for Pyeongchang. None of her runs down a half-pipe ever garnered her more than 40 out of the 100 points used to judge competitors, because she never attempted any of the expected tricks.

Instead, she would slowly make her way up and down the half-pipe, making sure not to fall. But her approach worked and she managed to secure enough points to reach the Olympics.

Hunting for an Olympic team

She also joined the Hungarian team, despite not being able to fluently speak the language and being American-born, because her maternal grandparents were Hungarians. She previously attempted to reach the Olympics as a skeleton racer for Venezuela, where her mother was born.

In Pyeongchang, she delivered her usual performance, and produced none of the flips, spins and grabs the other skiers executed. She also didn't soar high into the clear-blue sky, but merely jumped a few centimeters off the ground.

She finished last with a best score of 31.40, nearly 14 points behind her nearest competitor and over 40 points behind the lowest of the 12 qualified skiers.

"I didn't qualify for finals so I'm really disappointed," she said afterwards.

Her performance, though, has drawn both praise and heavy criticism and rekindled the debate over how athletes qualify for the Olympics.

She is not the first one to get to the Olympics despite a seemingly lack of talent. Britain's Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards did it in 1988 when he secured a place in the sky jumping event after failing to make the British team as a downhill racer.

His stunt, however, garnered him a legion of admirers at the time because of his goofy, amiable personality and because ski jumping appears to be a much more dangerous event.

Hungary responds

The Hungarian Ski Federation backed Swaney.

"She didn't take someone else's place so we don't see any reason why we shouldn't have supported her to participate," it said, highlighting that she had covered all her expenses as well.

The press in Hungary, however, was more divided.

"You can laugh or be ill at ease when you watch Elizabeth’s performance, but Hungary owe a lot to Swaney because she put our country on the map at the Olympics,” an opinion piece published on Index, one of the country's biggest news site, read.

Blikk, a Hungarian tabloid newspaper, was a lot more critical of her, writing that "any of the tough hobby-skiers can do better than her after training for three days" and suggesting she got her Olympic ticket because she might be some "oligarch's girlfriend."

Social media was equally divided.

Instagram user Annieberry1846 commented on Swaney's latest post thanking the athlete for "keeping the true Olympic spirit in the Olympics," but another user labelled Swaney "a disgrace."


Over on Twitter, users also debated the merit of Swaney's presence at the Olympics, with some praising her for going after her dreams — and others criticising her.

Swaney, who only started skiing eight years ago, has yet to say whether she will continue to compete.

According to her Facebook page, she studied at UC Berkeley and Harvard and works for two start-ups, Instaviser and Thumbtack.

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