Feb 14, 2014

    Russia's American medal hope


    AMERICAN snowboarder Vic Wild said he'll have two people to thank if he wins an Olympic gold medal this month: His Siberian wife and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

    Wild, unable to afford to train at an elite level in the United States, gained Russian citizenship in 2012 after moving to Moscow and marrying world champion snowboarder Alena Zavarzina.

    Now he's sponsored by Mr Putin's government and competing for Russia, which will pay him as much as 300,000 euros (S$518,000) if he adds to its medal count in Sochi.

    "If I'd stayed in the US, I wouldn't have this opportunity, and I wouldn't be doing what I love," Wild said. "I'd be in college or leading some different life."

    For the 27-year-old, who grew up near Mount Hood in White Salmon, Washington, the move is already paying off. He won his first World Cup parallel slalom race in 42 tries in Bad Gastein, Austria, on Jan 12, making him one of the favourites to earn the gold in Sochi on Feb 17.

    That victory wouldn't have been possible, he said, without the support of Russia's government, which is spending a record US$44 billion (S$56 billion) to host its first Winter Olympics. That doesn't include state and private outlays for individual sports or athletes.

    It costs "hundreds of thousands of dollars" a year for a professional snowboarder to train and live, according to Wild. The US Ski and Snowboard Association wasn't interested in funding alpine snowboarding, a niche that focuses on extreme speed rather than tricks or jumps, he said.

    "They're more interested in freestyle snowboarding rather than racing," Wild said. "I couldn't collect enough money, so the chances of me getting on the team were very limited."

    He is not the first American to assume Russian citizenship in pursuit of Olympic glory. Becky Hammon, a US-born basketballer, helped Russia win a bronze medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics after failing to make the US team. She also competed for Russia at the 2012 London Games.

    Adjusting to life in Moscow, though, including learning the language, has been tough for an American from a town of about 2,000 people, Wild said.

    "When I was in school, I didn't learn anything about Russia," he said. "My impression was that it was a cold place and that people are hard and drink a lot of alcohol. Now that I am living there, I know this is less true. People are pretty nice and have gone out of their way to help me."

    But having a wife more famous and wealthy than he is has helped, he added. Zavarzina, who won gold at the 2011 parallel giant slalom world championships, has sponsorship deals with OAO Megafon, Russia's second-largest mobile operator, and Audi AG, the German carmaker.

    While he desperately wants to win, Wild admitted he would struggle to sing Russia's national anthem on the podium.

    "They played the Russian anthem when I won the World Cup event and my wife asked me how I felt about it," he said. "I told her, 'When I'm in the starting gate, all I'm thinking about is competing for myself. I want to win for Vic first and for Russia second.'"