While the International Olympic Committee clamped down on the athletes who wanted to wear helmet stickers in memory of Canadian freestyle skiing pioneer Sarah Burke, they allowed a moving tribute to her before the start of the women's freestyle skiing halfpipe competition Thursday. Burke died at 29 in January 2012 following a crash in halfpipe training, but won four X Games golds and a world championship gold, helping to pioneer the women's sport and earn its inclusion in the 2014 Games. She's been fondly remembered by athletes from around the world who are competing in Sochi, and the halfpipe organizers did well to put a tribute to her together. In advance of the first run Thursday, a group of Sochi volunteers skied down the halfpipe in the shape of a heart to honour Burke. Here's a GIF of that:
The Canadian men's skicross team also wore ski pants that looked like denim Thursday morning in honour of Nik Zorocic, the Canadian racer who also died at 29 in 2012 following a crash in Switzerland. Zorocic was known for wearing jeans on the slope in one race when he couldn't find ski pants, so that was a perfect way to commemorate him. As Steve Simmons of The Toronto Sun writes, both tributes made their mark on athletes and spectators:
They were both 29 years old when they died — Sarah Burke and Nik Zoricic.
And it was hard not to cry — the athletes did, some of us did — when talking about the two Canadian skiers who died a month apart in 2012 while doing their extreme sports: They were leaders of substance, friends to everyone, from two different extreme disciplines new to the Olympics, one of them killed in practice, the other killed while racing by a wayward fence.
The impact of their deaths has profoundly affected their sports and athletes in them.
Burke died in January of 2012. She was four months older than Zoricic, who died in March. Her sport — of which she not was not just athlete and performer, but a pioneer — made its Olympic debut Thursday, and never would have been here had she not been the political force to push it through.
“Sarah inspired us on snow and off snow,” said gold-medal winner Maddie Bowman of the United States. “I think she would have been very proud (today). I sure hope I and everyone else made her proud because we would not be here without here.” ...
“The jeans are a salute to Nik,” said [Canadian skier David] Duncan. “In one of his first ski cross races ever, Nik raced in blue-jeans when he couldn’t come up with a pair of ski cross pants. Having (what looks like) jeans, it’s just a way to always have him with us.
“He’s with us every day. We’ve got the blue-jeans on as a salute to him. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him. He’s always with us. We don’t go out and do any cheer before or anything like that. But yeah he’s always with us.”
Said the fourth-place finisher, Canadian Brady Leman: “Losing Nik, that’s your worst nightmare come true. But it hasn’t made me more afraid. I think it’s made me more aware ... I’m definitely more aware of what can go wrong.”
It's great to see athletes, volunteers and spectators remember Burke and Zorocic. Their deaths are a reminder of some of the perils associated with these sports, but their lives were inspirational to many, both those who competed alongside them and those who watched from a distance. It's also smart of the IOC to not crack down on these particular tributes. While the sticker-banning decision still seems ill-advised, at least the IOC allowed Burke and Zorocic to be honoured in Sochi. Their memories will long live on in the sports world, both within Canada and beyond, and Thursday's tributes are a strong reflection of that.