Ashling O’Connor: Olympic spirit of Baron de Coubertin would embrace Vanessa-Mae playing 67th fiddle rather than focus exclusively on pursuit of gold
The list of British Olympians who did other things rather well is long
Friday 21 February 2014
Olympic athletes are supposed to be the best of the best. It is their job to excel solely in their chosen discipline, whether that be running, swimming or skiing down a mountain. So there is surely no place among the world’s elite sportsmen and women for people whose specialist skills lie elsewhere, like classical music for example, right? Wrong.
The Sochi Olympics was simply a more colourful event for the appearance this week in the giant slalom of Vanessa-Mae, the 35-year-old British violinist. Using her father’s name Vanakorn, she competed for Thailand – only the third person ever to appear for the country at the winter Games.
Vanessa-Mae, who has been skiing since the age of four and now lives in a Swiss ski resort, came last out of 67 finishers and was 50 seconds off the winning pace set by Tina Maze of Slovenia (who, incidentally, is also a chart-topping pop star in her homeland).
But she did not embarrass herself. She looked fairly useful on a pair of skis, in fact – she did have to qualify, even if the bar was set lower than for Alpine nations – and held a decent, if cautious, line down a course that many of her rivals didn’t even complete. Good on her. She was pretty unique already: at 13, she became the youngest soloist to record both the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky violin concertos and has gone on to sell 10 million records. I’d like to know of any other Olympic debutante who has also performed at a Paralympic closing ceremony.
The world needs its dabblers, which is why the sight of Hubertus von Hohenlohe in a racing suit inspired by Mexican mariachi singers will be a welcome one too.
The 55-year-old German prince, a descendant of the last Holy Roman Emperor and heir to the Fiat fortune, is Mexico’s one-man ski federation after he adopted the country of his birth to enter his first Olympics in Sarajevo in 1984, where he finished a respectable 26th in the men’s slalom. He will compete in the event today, when he is unlikely to trouble the top half of the field.
But he has as much right to be there as any of the favourites for the Olympic title. So did Vanessa-Mae, whose inclusion was criticised (in these pages too) for being tokenistic and representing a step back for women’s sport.
Some people have diverse talents, especially high achievers with a natural tendency to excel at almost everything they turn their hand to. Who are we to say how they apply them? If the rules provide an opportunity to take part, why not?
No one said Dale Begg-Smith, the mogul skier who won a gold medal in Turin in 2006 and a silver in Vancouver in 2010, had no place at the Olympics because he was also a multimillionaire internet entrepreneur (OK, so Canadians might have questioned his presence after he switched to Australian citizenship as a teenager but that would have been sour grapes).
No one said Kristan Bromley, the British slider, had no right to extend a thesis for his PhD in material engineering entitled “Factors Affecting the Performance of Skeleton Bobsleigh” into actually competing on the international circuit. No one begrudged Steph Cook putting her job as a junior doctor to one side to win a gold medal in modern pentathlon in Sydney in 2000 before she promptly went back to continue a successful medical career.
The list of British Olympians who did other things rather well is long. It includes Malcolm Cooper, a double Olympic shooting champion in 1984 and 1988, who also ran a company that made precision sniper rifles.
So too is the list of scions of the British aristocracy. Launceston Elliot, son of the Earl of Minto, kicked it off at the first modern Olympics in 1896 when he won a weightlifting gold medal. Indeed, it is pretty hard to argue against including rich eccentrics in the Olympics when the movement itself was founded by an Anglophile French baron who idealised Ancient Greece.
Pierre de Coubertin would have enjoyed watching Prince Hubertus and Vanessa-Mae. Their involvement doesn’t devalue what the best Olympians are achieving, it just adds texture to the event and to the overall experience of athletes thrown into a cultural melting pot at the Games.
In Britain of late we’ve become so used to winning gold medals that we’ve lost touch with the bigger picture. The relentlessly ruthless, “no compromise” approach to Olympic sports funding has made it a highly serious business, with no room for frivolity.
I’m not advocating a return to the days of Eddie the Eagle and plucky British losers – I enjoy the reflected glory of record Olympic success as much as anyone and the clear career path it offers to people from all social backgrounds – but there is no harm in a little fun. What is the point of sport, in the end, if it doesn’t make us smile?
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