MOSCOW, February 5 (Howard Amos, RIA Novosti) – A few years ago, says American snowboarder Vic Wild, he had “no money and no future” in the sport he loves. This month, he’ll be angling for gold at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The game-changer? A Russian passport.
A lifelong snowboarder from the West Coast of the United States, 27-year-old Wild is the only US citizen competing for Russia at the Games – and one of the country’s big Olympic hopes in a sport where it has little experience.
The move seems to have benefitted both sides: Wild gets to focus on his passion without the financial burdens that beset American Olympic hopefuls, and Russia gets a chance to up its tally of medals in the first post-Soviet Olympics on its home turf – a record-breakingly expensive extravaganza intended to raise the country’s global prestige.
For months, Wild has been shuttling between Moscow and the mountains in Siberia and Europe where the Russian team trains. In an interview with RIA Novosti, he described his experiences so far: how the former Russian president may have sped up his citizenship application; how his snowboarding has improved; his views on Russia’s controversial anti-gay law and Olympic facilities; and a run-in with a sniper in the mountains above Sochi.
Moving East on the Fast Track
The idea of asking Moscow for citizenship came from Russian snowboarding champion Alyona Zavarzina, whom Wild started dating a few years ago and married soon after.
“Most people thought I was pretty crazy but they were also, like, you know what, man? Go for it,” he said. “Everybody that I snowboarded with was super stoked.”
Obtaining Russian citizenship usually takes much longer than the one year it took Wild – even for those with Russian spouses – and he suspects his application may have been nudged along at the highest level after Zavarzina spoke to then-President Dmitry Medvedev at a Kremlin reception.
“They were able to make it happen,” Wild said.
The Kremlin has indeed been known to occasionally fast-track the citizenship process, though the highest-profile cases have been more overtly political: the irreverent French actor Gerard Depardieu, who denounced Europe’s high taxes, in January 2013 and the notorious Soviet spies Kim Philby and Guy Burgess in the 1960s.
Wild certainly isn’t the only promising athlete to get Russian citizenship. Others competing for Russia in Sochi include Viktor Ahn (Ahn Hyun-Soo), a South Korean short track speed skater, and Alex Glebov, an Alpine skier from Slovenia.
Trading Dollars for Rubles, Facebook for Freedom
Though Wild has been on the US national team in non-Olympic events, he’s been dogged by the same problem as most young American athletes hoping for a chance at the Games: constantly battling for funding – which, in the US, is mostly a private affair.
“I didn’t have nearly enough support to get what I wanted out of the sport,” he said. “I was digging myself a hole I wasn’t getting out of.”
The state-run snowboarding set-up in Russia has allowed him to concentrate purely on his sport, Wild said. Unlike his wife, he does not have any sponsorship deals. But funding from the Sports Ministry is generous enough to allow him to devote himself to snowboarding full-time.
It also gives him the freedom to ignore some of the Olympic hype among his peers. Wild said he has unfollowed many of his US athlete friends on Facebook to avoid their constant Olympic-related posts.
“I don’t want to see it all the time, I don’t want to be a part of it,” he said. “I understand why some people have to play it up… These guys need money and they have to make a big deal of it.”
High Hopes and ‘Insane’ Speed
Wild, who has been snowboarding since he was seven, said he doesn’t need much coaching and is mostly left to his own devices by the Russian coaches, an arrangement he prefers.
At the same time, he admitted he feels an obligation to perform well in Sochi.
“With how much money they are investing into us individually, you owe it to them to try your best,” he said.
Russia has not only spent more than $50 billion to host the Olympics, but has poured money into winter sports ahead of 2014 to try to ensure a large medal haul. The national team performed disappointingly during the last Winter Games in Vancouver, finishing 11th in the final medals table.
A relatively new Olympic discipline, snowboarding is traditionally dominated by athletes from the United States. Russia has only one Olympic medal to its name – Yekaterina Ilyukhina’s 2010 silver in Vancouver.
And other than Wild, who competes in the slalom events, the handful of Russian snowboarders with high hopes for medals in Sochi are women, including Zavarzina and double world champion snowboarder Yekaterina Tudegesheva.
Wild said he is currently in the best form of his life. Since joining the Russian team, he won bronze at the parallel giant slalom world championship in January 2013 and last month he produced his best international performance to date, winning gold at a World Cup stage in Austria.
“I’ve got a lot better,” he said, in comparison to 2012. “It’s pretty insane how fast I can go.”
Gays, Snow and Snipers
Russia’s Olympic efforts have drawn scrutiny in the West, particularly due to a controversial anti-gay law passed last year and a mix of corruption and rights abuses in constructing facilities.
Wild was cautiously critical, and he opposed calls to boycott Sochi.
"It is unfortunate that people in the government choose to spend the time and resources to create a law like this when there are many other truly pressing issues," he said of the legislation concerning homosexuality.
The law bans the promotion of “non-traditional sexual relations” to minors and has been condemned by world leaders and foreign athletes due to compete in Sochi.
US snowboarding double Olympic gold medal winner Seth Wescott told the Associated Press in September that the gay rights issue was tarnishing the event.
Wild is similarly careful about passing judgment on the sporting facilities in Sochi. But he did say that, while the snowboarding at the highest parts of the resort was world class, temperatures lower down were not cold enough.
“If you go mid-mountain and below it’s a little warm and there’s not a whole lot of snow,” he said.
The snowboarder also recounted how, when in Sochi last winter, he and his friends were amazed to come across a guard in full snow-camouflage armed with a sniper rifle.
Sochi is just a few hundred kilometers from Russia’s troubled North Caucasus where killings and explosions are an almost daily occurrence, fuelled by an Islamist insurgency, corruption, poverty and clan rivalry.
The Road Ahead
Wild says he has few regrets about the relocation to Russia and doesn’t plan to leave.
“Before, I had no money and no future. But now I have a future in my sport,” he said.
While he hopes he’ll find the time to improve his basic Russian language skills after the Olympics are over, the bulk of his time may be going to snowboarding – with an eye on the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
“I hope to work in Russia for a long time,” he said. “I could get a lot better between now and Korea.”