What makes an Olympian? SPORTS RADAR assesses reactions to Elizabeth Swaney

Posted on February 20, 2018

SMS INC.’s social listening tool, SPORTS RADAR, took aim at one of the central debates around the Olympic movement. Is the “Olympic Spirit” shown by those with no prospect of winning medals what the Olympics is all about, or do entrants with limited credentials undermine the Olympics instead?

The 1988 Winter Olympics was home to perhaps the most recognisable underdog of all time in Eddie the Eagle, whose brand of fierce optimism and courage was a source of inspiration for millions of spectators, as well as a key spur to the tightening on Olympic ski jump regulations that mandated that athletes must be in the top 30% of international competitors or the top 50 worldwide. More recently, Eric the Eel captured the hearts of many at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. The 2018 Winter Olympics has not been short of its share of plucky underdogs, with Pita Taufatofua (aka the topless Tongan flagbearer) stealing the show at the Opening ceremony and generating significant coverage even as he finished 114th in the 15km cross-country race.

Yesterday the decades old debate crystallised around Hungarian half pipe skier Elizabeth Swaney, who worked her way down the Olympic course without attempting a single trick. Swaney had noticed a loophole in qualification rules that meant that competitors needed to achieve a number of top-30 World Cup positions. Swaney managed 13 top 30 finishes by entering World Cup events with fewer than 30 athletes. Alongside some other loopholes in the Hungarian Ski Federation regulations, Swaney managed to plot her path to the Olympic Games.

However, how did social media react to Swaney’s exploits?

SPORTS RADAR analysed 100 posts in detail to understand the sentiment surrounding Swaney’s last place finish. Overall reaction was mixed, with 46% of respondents supporting Swaney and praising her Olympic spirit and resourcefulness, congratulating her for continuing the life-affirming tradition of the Olympic underdog. The 54% of negative comments saw Swaney as “disrespecting” the games,  “wasting time” and “making a mockery” of athletes who dedicate years to pursuit of bigger amplitude and better scores. The fact that Swaney was self-funded led some to accuse the American born athlete of buying her way into the Games.

As for Swaney herself, she insists that she wants to use her Olympic experience as a way to inspire new athletes and show the watching world that it is never too late to get into freestyle skiing. Whichever side of the debate you sit on, one thing is irrefutable. Elizabeth Swaney is an Olympian.

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