After Dara Howell became the first person to win a gold medal in an Olympic slopestyle ski competition, she took a moment to remember the person who laid the path behind her.
“I said the other day that I really hope Canada brings home a gold medal and it will be for Sarah,” the 19-year-old from Huntsville, Ont., said. “This medal is definitely for Sarah. She pushed the sport.”
It was an act of remembrance that took on special significance after Olympians realized this weekend that they would not be able to honour Sarah Burke, the Canadian freeskiing star who died two years ago. Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter prohibits athletes from displaying any form of “publicity or propaganda” on any article of clothing or equipment worn during the Olympic Games. The IOC has decided that this applies to stickers honouring Burke. Despite athletes’ protests over the last few days, the IOC has refused to budge.
Skiers and snowboarders have worn the stickers since Burke died in a training accident in Park City, Utah, in January 2012. They say things like #Celebrate Sarah or have her name scribbled in red handwriting next to a snowflake–a design that Sarah had tattooed on her foot.
Australian snowboarder Torah Bright expressed her frustration with the IOC on her Instagram account. “I ride with a Sarah sticker on my snowboard and helmet always…Sarah is a beautiful, talented, powerful woman [whose] spirit inspires me still. She is a big reason why skier pipe/slope are now Olympic events.”
Canadian skier Roz Groenewoud also wears a Sarah sticker on her helmet and calls Burke her hero.
That was one of the words that came up repeatedly after Burke fell on a routine training run and slipped into a coma two years ago. As the freeskiing community rallied around her family and letters from all over the world poured into the University of Utah Hospital, Burke’s husband, Rory Bushfield, sat beside her and read every one. Sarah was a role model, the letters said. A pioneer. A trailblazer.
The short version of her remarkable story is that before she was a teenager, Burke was sneaking onto the half-pipe at Horseshoe Valley ski resort near Midland, Ont., where she grew up–even though it was restricted to snowboarders. By the time she was 15, she was doing tricks that the boys her age couldn’t do. After she left high school she moved out west to become a pro skier and entered men’s half-pipe skiing events, knowing her scores wouldn’t count. While still a teenager, Burke campaigned relentlessly to have women’s half-pipe skiing included in the Winter X Games. She barraged them with letters and phone calls until her persistence paid off. Burke was the first woman to land a 720-degree jump, a 900 and a 1080 in half-pipe competition. She became a four-time X Games champion.
Through all of her success, Burke battled for more. The X Games weren’t enough. She was a driving force behind the effort to have women’s half-pipe and slopestyle skiing included in the Winter Olympics. A year before she died, it was announced that both events would be included at the Sochi Olympics.
She would have been 31 years old had she made it to these Games, but as a force in the sport who set the bar for excellence, she still would have been a medal favourite. Instead, many of the athletes she inspired will be Olympians for the first time.
Burke’s mother, Jan Phelan, says she’d hate to see her daughter’s friends use up their energy fighting against the IOC’s rules before they compete. “I think Sarah would want them just to ski their best and have a great time,” she says. “Let the IOC have their rules and regulations. We have Sarah in our hearts and we all know it.”
Bushfield, Burke’s husband, wasn’t surprised by the IOC’s unmoving stance on the tributes–weird as it may be–but says her legacy is in the event itself.
“The half-pipe event alone will be a huge honour to Sarah,” he says. Burke’s family had plans to be at the half-pipe event in Sochi, but Phelan and Bushfield ran into complications when their Air China flights were cancelled at the last minute, with refunds months away from being disbursed. New flights will run them north of $6,000—the freeskiing community has started a campaign to help cover their costs.
The IOC has tried to dance around its decision to ban the stickers, expressing sympathy and suggesting that there are other ways to remember and honour Sarah Burke. But it will not allow stickers. This is the same IOC that has ignored the fact that Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter—which states that “any form of discrimination…is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement”—is being violated by Russia’s current anti-gay policies.
It seems that, at the Olympics, principles can be broken. Rules cannot.
Really though, the IOC doesn’t define what the Olympics are about. They can’t control the messages that athletes will inevitably share—whether they’re loud and political, or just a simple remembrance of a friend and mentor.
The Games are about politics. They are about the posturing of nations. They are about civil rights. They are about battles—victories and losses, big and small. Bridges and divides.
The Games are about messages. They are about commitment and passion and love. And yes, at the core, they are about sport; about resilience and individual accomplishment. Sometimes they are about remembering.
They are about a lot of things the IOC can’t control. That’s what makes them great.
Shortly after Burke died her coach, Trennon Paynter, sent out a message of remembrance on Twitter. “She’s in every snowflake, every ray of sunshine, every breeze, ” he wrote. “More than ever, now and always, I #BelieveinSarah.”
Next week on a half-pipe in Sochi, with millions of snowflakes on the sun-kissed slopes, Burke’s final dream will come true as dozens more get to reach for theirs. With or without the decals, Sarah Burke will be there—because for them, at least, these Games belong to her.
Dan Robson writes for Sportsnet.