Laugh at her if you will but I have never liked Vanessa-Mae more. Sure, she’s a bazillionaire violinist who didn’t need any more publicity, but if she wanted a second career, she could have spent the past six months sculpting a new violin out of used twenty-pound notes and pretending she was a conceptual artist. Instead, she decided to spend them training to ski the Giant Slalom before competing for Thailand in the Winter Olympics.
She wasn’t taking up a place that could have gone to a more-qualified contender: Thailand boasts one more Olympic-standard skier than my flat, and he’s competing in the men’s events. And Mae had a gratifying sense of self-awareness about her chances. Interviewed by the BBC, she said, ‘It's so cool. You've got the elite skiers of the world and then you've got some mad old woman like me trying to make it down.’ She may have come last, 27 seconds behind the winner, but she was less than 8 seconds behind the second-slowest competitor. In other words, the gap between Mae and the less good elite skiers of the world is far smaller than the gap between them and the very best. And this is her second job.
In taking on an impossible challenge, Mae might have come last but what has she lost? A bit of dignity, perhaps? When a 35-year-old, celebrated for her beauty, describes herself as a ‘mad old woman,’ it’s probably fair to suggest she isn’t too worried about her dignity. And the Winter Olympics is exactly the place to remind everyone that sometimes, it really is the taking part that counts. Mae is continuing the noble tradition of Eddie the Eagle Edwards and the Jamaican bobsled team who inspired Cool Runnings. You might not have a hope in hell of winning, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t even try.
And of all the sports she could have had a go at, Giant Slalom is hardly an easy option. She could have tried the curling, where the only real risk is that you might trip on your brush and fall over, blinded by the trousers of the Norwegian Men’s Curling team. She could have tried the luge, where the main requirement is the ability to lie down really well. But no, she went for the sport where you stand a more than decent chance of falling down a mountain face-first and breaking something important, like an arm.
Competing for gold is only part of what the Olympics is supposed to be about. Behind all the sponsorship and politics and money is something else: the ambition to be better than you are at something, even if that something is throwing yourself down a mountain on a pair of sticks.
Mae can only have been successful in such a cutthroat world as classical music by being deeply competitive. And yet she is able to put aside that competitive nature to have a punt on something difficult, knowing that she would be watched and judged by the global media. She must have known that if she so much as slid into a gate, video of her gaffe would have been all over the world in record-breaking time. And she took the risk anyway.
Of course there will be those who think that allowing hopeless contenders into a prestigious sporting event makes a mockery of the whole thing. But the Olympics was once about amateur sportsmen and women taking part for the glory of the attempt. And perhaps in another Olympics or two, there will be a few more Thai athletes competing, inspired by their countrywoman’s effort. And though the winners have our respect for their commitment and endurance over years or decades of competing, I shall nonetheless remember Mae’s heartening words: "I nearly crashed three times, but I made it down and that was the main thing. Just the experience of being here is amazing."