Is Elizabeth Swaney a Setback for Women in the Olympics?

The Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics have provided a wealth of history-making and glass-ceiling-breaking moments – Chloe Kim being the first woman to land back-to-back 1080s, Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall (both women) winning the first gold medal in cross-country skiing for the US, Mirai Nagasu becoming the first American woman to land a triple axel, and Lindsey Vonn’s farewell Olympics run – and yet, we seem to be more fascinated with the most mundane Olympian in this year’s games… Elizabeth Swaney, an American competing for Hungary.

“Mundane” is seldom used to described an Olympian; after all, the Olympic games feature athletes who are deemed the “best of the best” from their respective countries. The world’s best snowboarders, skiers, figure skaters, hockey players, curlers, bobsledders, and more, congregate every four years to compete in the esteemed winter games – and this year, among them was a mere mortal.

33-year-old Elizabeth Swaney’s Olympic halfpipe run stunned the world, but not in the way you would think…

Her run consisted of zero tricks, with Swaney simply skiing from edge to edge of the pipe – sometimes sending it no more than two inches out of it. Her score? 31.40 – over 40 points below the lowest-placed of the 12 skiers to move onto the medal round.

An additional dissimilarity between Swaney and other Olympic athletes include purpose; Swaney didn’t enter the games with an intention of winning gold. The Harvard graduate competed because she could, with the help of a few loopholes.

Critics are calling Swaney’s lackluster run destructive to women sports, particularly women’s halfpipe skiing – which, despite making great strides in the past decade, still suffers from consequences of sexism, including insufficient respect and support (especially when compared to the men’s). Critics argue that this “incident” disrupts people’s ability to hold women’s sports in high regards – if she can’t take the sport seriously, why should we?! Furthermore, they claim it mocks and retrogresses how far women have come in the Olympics.

However, if one athlete can ruin the “respect” you have for the entirety of women’s sports, then Swaney is not the problem, you are.

Let’s pretend that a man pulled a Swaney and figured out a way to legally and fairly achieve a spot on a country’s Olympic team and partake in the games – oh wait, we don’t have to pretend, because it happened… Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards in the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics ski-jumping competition. Edwards represented Great Britain in ski-jumping, purely because he could since the sport was so new and his competition for the nation’s team was nonexistent. He was not condemned for ruining the future of the budding sport, nor was he was criticized for “mocking” the revered Olympic games; instead, he was praised. The world was enamored with his authenticity and Eddie evolved into a media sensation overnight. He landed a sponsorship with Eagle Airlines, carried the torch in the 2010 Vancouver games, and his life was rendered on the big screen in Eddie the Eagle (2016), starring Hugh Jackman

It seems, because Swaney is a woman, she is being held to a higher standard – as well as a double standard. If the success of all women’s sports truly rides on each female athlete’s individual success, then why do we not hold male athletes with the same accountability?

If critics are so concerned with Swaney single-handedly reversing any and all progress women have made in the Olympic games since their induction in 1952, then the same critics should be equally, if not more, perturbed by the blatantly sexist construction of courses and regulations. Did you know that over a dozen women’s courses in luge, speed-skating, alpine skiing, and cross-country skiing are significantly shorter, apparently to accommodate women’s inferior endurance levels? Read: Why Some Winter Olympics Sports are “Faster, Higher, Stronger” for Men Only by Maggie Mertens via DeadSpin.

If you’re going to be mad at someone for holding women back in the Olympics, don’t be mad at Elizabeth Swaney; be mad at the games itself.


P.S. Just a related side-note… Apparently Armada paid Swaney to not use their skis ever again.


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