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Cross-country dreams fuel Russian Babikov to adopt Canada

Cross-country dreams fuel Russian Babikov to adopt Canada{mosimage}CANMORE, Alberta – Russian cross-country skier Ivan Babikov stood near the podium, waving to the ecstatic Canadian fans, who already consider him one of their own.

He wears the red Maple Leaf and trains under the same coaches as the rest of Canada’s cross-country team. But Babikov is caught in the middle of the complicated process to gain citizenship, and even he gets confused about his nationality.

“I hope it will work out,” he said Saturday after an 18th-place World Cup finish in the 30-kilometer classic race. “I’m sure not this Olympics but next year for World Championships I hope I will be racing under the Canadian flag. But nobody knows. I feel more Canadian now than Russian. I don’t think about it.”

As of now, he won’t be competing in the Torino Olympics for Canada or Russia despite having met the qualifying standards.

The Russian federation has cleared him to ski for Canada, though Babikov has yet to meet requirements to receive a Canadian passport and compete internationally for his new country. He is still listed as Russian.

“He’s sort of on our team and sort of not,” said Shayla Swanson of the Canadian women’s team. “He’s been adopted.”

Canada is touting the 25-year-old among its top Olympic hopefuls for 2010 in Vancouver, British Columbia. He placed a career-best fourth in Thursday’s 15-kilometer freestyle and got to stand on the stage during the awards ceremony.

Babikov has spent close to three years trying to gain Canadian citizenship, competing on the country’s circuit and at this weekend’s World Cup. Babikov has met qualifications to race in the Olympics in February, though he doesn’t expect the Russians to ask him back.

“There’s a small chance, but I don’t think it will happen,” he said.
It’s almost unheard of for a cross-country skier to come to North America to compete and train when it’s the Scandinavians and Eastern Europeans who dominate this sport.

Babikov’s wife, Svetlana, and 2-year-old son, Sergey, are back home, waiting. Babikov, from the Russian coal mining city of Syktyvkar, and his mother moved to Canada for a better life after Babikov’s sister also came to Canada.

In his World Cup debut last weekend in Vernon, British Columbia, Babikov started in the 43rd position in the 30-kilometer pursuit and moved as high as sixth heading into final lap when an Italian stepped on his ski and caused Babikov to fall. He dropped back to 30th, then somehow made up 16 spots to finish 14th.

“He is Canadian and he’s one of our best athletes,” said Bruce Jeffries, executive director of Cross Country Canada. “We didn’t beat the bushes looking for Ivan, he came to us. There’s no integrity issue here in my mind, no ethical problem. This is in the best traditions of the Canadian rise, taking in immigrants from around the world and providing them with opportunities.”

Jeffries first heard about Babikov when the young man’s mother called to see what the Canadian ski program could do to assist them with the move and help her son reach his Olympic dream. Jeffries politely explained the process wasn’t that easy.

Now, Babikov’s club team out of Calgary is working on the citizenship issue. Those trying to become citizens must have three years of residency in a four-year period, which is difficult for Babikov considering his travel schedule and the summer trips to Russia to see his wife and son.

“He pretty much showed up on my doorstep 2 1/2 years ago with rags on,” recalled Phil Villeneuve, the team manager of club team X-C.com who let Babikov live in his basement.

Babikov, who now lives in Canmore, has been part of the Canadian team for just more than two weeks. Jeffries made sure Babikov received the country’s assistance card that provides Canada’s elite athletes with about US $20,000 (€17,000) to live and train. The Canadians didn’t dare lose him after Babikov spent much of last winter racing in the United States for the Subaru Factory Team because he couldn’t afford to stay in Canada and not make money, which he wires home.

George Grey, one of Canada’s top men, hopes with the addition of Babikov the Canadians will continue to emerge as an international power in cross-country – just as Beckie Scott and Sara Renner have on the women’s side.

Grey’s 16th-place finish Thursday in the 15 km free was Canada’s best men’s result in 15 years in an elite international race.

“With him added to the team, it’s going to be nothing but beneficial,” Grey said. “It helps give more momentum to the upward surge of the men’s team.”

There is a provision in Canada’s citizenship act that allows special consideration for those with high skills in their field. Jeffries hopes that might apply for Babikov.

“With ministerial intervention, I could see Ivan with a passport sooner, possibly as early as next year,” Jeffries said. “It’s a wonderful story.”

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