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

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?

Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
News
science
Life and Style
Emoji are rapidly becoming the language of the internet
techWhy internet acronyms are being driven out by emoji
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before