Was Vanessa Mae's Olympic qualification 'rigged'?
An investigation is launched into a Sochi Wintwer Olympics qualifier as four Slovenian ski officials are suspended for allegedly rigging the results of the race
Published 12/07/2014 | 10:20
When it was announced that Vanessa-Mae, the renowned violinist, had qualified for the Winter Olympics as a skier, there were a few raised eyebrows.
Those reservations about her ski-ing ability appeared justified when she then finished dead last – in 67th place – at Sochi; completing two runs of the giant slalom almost a minute slower than the winner.
Now, her qualification for the games is at the centre of an investigation after it was announced that four Slovenian ski officials had been suspended for allegedly rigging the results of one of her qualifying races.
Mae, 35, a British citizen who was born in Singapore, qualified just weeks before the start of the Olympics in February this year after managing to reach the required standard during four races in Slovenia in January.
Her manager Giles Holland said at the time: “It would appear that she’s done it. She’s done it by a whisker, but she’s done it.”
Mae, recognising that she could not meet the British team’s qualifying standards, had chosen to represent Thailand, using the surname of her Thai father, Vorapong Vanakorn.
This was because under Olympic qualification rules, countries without a skier ranked in the world’s top 500 were allowed to send one man and one woman to the Games if they could produce an average of 140 points or fewer over five recognised races beforehand.
Athletes earn points on an inverse scale based on their performance, so the fewer points an athlete has, the better they are.
Mae managed to dip under the 140-mark average when she raced four times in Slovenia over one weekend in January.
She scored 131.15; 137.95; 108.45 and 115.79 in the races, one of which was a national junior championships, in which she was more than 14 years older than any other entrant.
At previous qualifying events in other countries, Mae’s best score was 157.30 and she frequently scored more than 200, receiving 337.50 points for one race in Sweden in November 2013.
The Slovenian Ski Association (SSA) said on Friday it has discovered clear breaches of International Ski Federation (FIS) rules in one race, and had passed a file to the country’s public prosecutor.
SSA director Yuri Zurej said: “We think there is serious doubt about what happened in the race.”
Mr Zurej said the SSAS had discovered a number of irregularities concerning measurements and results, including a case of one Slovenian competitor who was listed in the official results but did not in fact take part.
Mr Zurej said: “When we checked the competition and all the data, we discovered that, on the results list on the second day of the competition, in fourth place there was a girl not even physically present at the course.
“Another example was of a girl who told us she fell in the race and then slowly continued to the finish line, but was recorded as finishing in second place.
“We were also told the weather conditions were impossible to compete in. but still the race was done.”
The Slovenian association has proposed four-year suspensions for the four officials involved in the organisation of the races, including Vlado Makuc, the head of the country’s Alpine skiing body.
The findings of the investigation will also be forwarded to the Slovenian police and FIS, the Swiss-based international ski federation.
Zurej said there was no direct evidence to link the alleged improprieties to Mae’s qualification for the Sochi Games and no evidence any athletes were involved in any wrongdoing.
He said: “We must state clearly that there is absolutely no proof any athlete, including Vanessa, was knowingly involved in any activities that would breach any of our rules or those of the International Ski Federation.”
Mae, who was born in Singapore but raised in Britain, started playing the violin when she was five.
Aged eight, she became the youngest pupil at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, earning the nickname 'Teeny Paganini’. By the time she was 13, she was the youngest soloist to record both Beethoven and Tchaikovsky concertos.
As a teenager, she moved away from traditional classical music into pop, performing on Janet Jackson’s 1997 album, the Velvet Rope.
She went on to make a number of solo albums, selling an estimated 10 million records.
In 2010 Mae – worth an estimated £32 million – announced she would be putting her music career on hold to “focus on my hobby” – revealing her ambition to compete in the 2014 Winter Games in Russia as a skier.
“It has been my dream and I am hoping people will accept I just want to give it my best,” said Mae, who has an alpine apartment in Zermatt, Switzerland. “I am taking a plunge. I am British, but realistically there is no way I could represent my own country.
“Because my natural father is Thai, they have accepted me.”
At the Games, Mae clocked the two runs in a total of 3 minutes, 26.97 seconds.
The gold medal was won by Tina Maze of Slovenia.
She said at the time: “The Olympics is like the greatest show on earth and to just share the same snow, to be able to slide down the same snow that the elite skiers carve down is just an honour and a privilege.”
Gian Franco Kasper, the president of international ski federation FIS, said he was “disappointed” by the alleged cheating but that no action could be taken until the Slovenian association had completed its inquiry.
“We have told the Slovenian ski federation that for the time being they should go into the details and find out what their own people did and determine domestic sanctions,” Kasper told The Associated Press.
“Then we will decide what we have to do on our side. ... We have no proof for the time being.”
Speaking about Mae he added: “She was not the best skier. I think you have seen that.”
Mae’s manager failed to respond to requests for comment.