You might recall Elizabeth Swaney, the 33-year-old Californian and one time gubernatorial candidate, who represented Hungary at the Winter Olympics this year.
Her story is unique for two reasons: First, she posted a freestyle skiing run that was so profoundly average and unexciting, many thought she’d either injured herself or was mounting some type of protest. And second, she qualified for the Hungarian team by way of her family heritage.
Swaney could have never cracked the U.S. team. She knew that but understood the Olympic system, her options, and planned accordingly. To qualify, Swaney had to finish in the top 30 at a World Cup event (some of which had less than 30 athletes) and score a minimum number of FIS points.
In 2020, surfing will be a part of the Olympic Games for the very first time and several athletes will be using similar paths to Swaney’s in order to qualify.
Allow me to go off the rails here for a moment and give some context: surfing in the Olympics has been an obvious point of debate in surfing circles for years (as far back as I can remember), with people mostly fitting into one of two camps.
There’s those who love it: For the sport of surfing, inclusion at the world’s most prestigious sporting event is a statement of legitimacy and a big step toward a brave new future. Surfing has now risen from the fringes, outgrown its crusty, mop-haired, stoner reputation, and entered the mainstream. And then there’s those who loathe it: Surfing is art, not competition, corporate dollars, and pageantry — Olympic surfing is not surfing. This part of the herd doesn’t see professional infrastructure fitting in with core surfing culture.
Regardless of where anyone stands, you can understand why professional competitive athletes seem fairly jazzed about the whole affair. It’s the goddamned Olympics, after all, and you get to compete on a gigantic stage.
While many surfers might not like the fact that their sport will be part of the Games, you sure couldn’t tell that from the reaction to announcements that two of America’s best surfers will compete under different national flags. Patriotic commenters came out in full force to express their displeasure.
Tatiana Weston-Webb and Kanoa Igarashi are U.S. citizens who have opted to compete for Brasil and Japan respectively. Weston-Webb is based out of Hawaii, Igarashi, Huntington Beach, and both have worked their asses off to get on to the Championship Tour, where they’re globally recognized as serious stars in the making.
“what is up with all these surfers turning there back on the USA? Super lame (sic)”
“Bye bye Tatiana, you’re forgettable style and approach to a wave will be sorely missed… and if you don’t start making more heats and surfing better on the Tour it won’t matter what country you represent.”
“Surprise Surprise! With Courtney, Caroline and the other Hawaiians competing for the spots on the US team, Tati had little chance of surfing in the Olympics for the U.S.”
“You gotta be kidding me. I’m a progressive, even liberal, but he wouldn’t be anywhere without America, the system here and so cal. Maybe he should move to Japan.”
“Wonder how the other true born Japanese surfers feel about this? Doesn’t seem right”
“I was a fan based on his USA status, but not now. Clearly he is just trying to benefit from the Japan connection, he should move (sic) there and show them how local he is.”
“how convenient. be piss funny if he fails to make the cut for the Japanese team and Donald denies him his duel citizenship.”
This is a small sample (there are a lot more and a lot worse), but the comments section of an internet article is not where one should go looking for inspiration.
But, what the comments do show is that people care. And athletes care and want to make it to that stage. That’s why Swaney’s ploy was understandable.
You could easily argue that both Igarashi and Weston-Webb have shots of qualifying for Team USA, which has a really deep talent pool and a lot of more-experienced surfers vying for the same opportunity in 2020. But the chances increase exponentially for each if they travel a similar road to Swaney.
If they make the Brazilian and Japanese teams, respectively, they may take a spot from a local athlete who would otherwise have made the team and gotten the opportunity. That does seem harsh. It also seems very privileged to be in a position to choose which country you represent, in a world where many people are just looking for a place to live.
But the Olympics are clearly special in the minds of athletes. And everyone, it seems, wants a chance to compete on that stage.
In the case of Elizabeth Swaney, it sounds like she was just making up numbers at an event the Hungarian side would have otherwise forfeited. Thing is, while both Igarashi and Weston-Webb are playing a similar numbers game to ensure their respective places, neither is pulling an Elizabeth Swaney, per se. They’re qualified athletes, both of whom are considered outside shots at maybe winning a World Title someday. Going to the Olympics and putting on a lackluster performance that confuses the hell out of people would be the last thing you’d associate with either one.