Russia's Squandered Olympic Gold
At the time of writing, Russia was in seventh place in the Sochi Olympics medal standings with a single gold, won in the team figure skating competition. It might have been second after Norway and ahead of Canada, if three freshly-minted Olympic champions hadn't chosen to compete for other countries.
They are Iouri "iPod" Podladtchikov, who won the snowboard halfpipe competition for Switzerland; Anastasiya Kuzmina, who gave Slovakia its second-ever Winter Olympics gold by winning the women's biathlon sprint race (she also won Slovakia's first gold, in Vancouver, four years ago); and Darya Domracheva, winner of the women's biathlon 10-kilometer pursuit for Belarus.
All three could have been part of Team Russia, but decided against it for different reasons.
Podladtchikov, now 25 years old, was born in Podolsk near Moscow to a family of mathematicians. In 1992, when Russian science was in shambles, Iouri's father was offered a job in Sweden. The family moved to the Netherlands, and finally Switzerland. They kept their Russian citizenship, however, and in 2004 Podladtchikov made an unsuccessful world cup debut wearing Russian colors. In 2006, he represented Russia at the Turin Olympics, but a fall relegated him to 37th place. After that, he competed for Switzerland, saying he could not work with Russian coaches. "In our sport, it does not work to order people about, it's all about inspiration, psychology," he said in a recent interview. "In the Russian team it's very funny: the coach, for example, determines that that everybody must be asleep by 11 pm. How is that supposed to work?"
Podladtchikov's performance has improved dramatically since the flag change. Russian sports officials tried to persuade him to come back, but the snowboarder refused. "We were speaking different languages," he said. "The bureaucrats thought I would run after them asking for a chance to compete for Russia, but that will never happen."
Kuzmina, the biathlon pursuit winner, is now 29. She was born in Tyumen, Siberia, where biathlon -- a combination of cross-country skiing with rifle shooting -- is enormously popular. She won several European trophies for Russia and, in 2007, married a Russian-born Israeli skier. After their son was born, Kuzmina thought of resuming her athletic career at home, but found she was no longer wanted. "The fact that I had a family, a child, practically put an end to my career," she told Sports.ru. "I was not an Olympic champion at the time and not number one on the team, so it was very hard for me to come back. I felt no support. We tried to set root in Russia and we lived for six months with our baby hoping someone would help. At the end we were severely disappointed and moved to another country."
Kuzmina has settled well in Slovakia: It's more laid back and there is no cutthroat internal competition on the team, she says: "In Russia, I could not have achieved a medal, let alone the gold."
The case of 27 year-old Domracheva appears to be the most conflict-free. The future biathlon star was born in Minsk, Belarus, to a family of architects. She moved to Russia when she was little and her mother was appointed chief architect of Nyagan, a new city then being built to service West Siberian oil fields. Domracheva made biathlon her sport and won multiple junior national championships. She was considered a hot prospect for the Russian national team, but then her father died and she and her mother decided to move back to Minsk, now the capital of an independent state. "This is my native country, I was born in Belarus," Domracheva told an interviewer. "I knew I would go back there since I was a kid."
Tactical citizenship changes are common in sports. Victor Ahn, who won the bronze in short track for Russia in Sochi, once competed successfully for South Korea, applying for Russian citizenship when he was pushed off the team. Russia, however, is unique in having trained so many champions who brought glory to other countries.
Talent is one of Russia's most important exports. A video made for the Sochi opening ceremony pays tribute to Igor Sikorsky, who built his helicopters in the U.S.; Vladimir Zworykin, who pioneered modern television while working for Westinghouse in Pittsburgh; painter Marc Chagall, who became a French citizen in 1937 and died in Provence in 1985; and Wassily Kandinski, who did most of his groundbreaking work in Germany and also died a French citizen.
Russia is not the most welcoming of nations to its best and brightest. "It was the devil's curse that was I born in Russia with brains and talent," Alexander Pushkin, the national poet also honored in the video, once wrote, desperately. Some athletes could echo this sentiment but, being practical people, choose to move away.
Russian sports officials, meanwhile, look to foreign talent to win medals in disciplines where locals do not excel: Witness the successful case of Ahn and the failed effort to recruit Canadian players for the men's curling team. After all, talent is one of Russia's biggest imports, too: the same opening night video mentions Catherine the Great, a German, and the painter Kazimir Malevich, a Pole who worked in Russia for most of his life.
(Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)
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