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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Skier Racing to Gain Citizenship

APBabikov in Alberta on Saturday
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 Turin Olympics for Canada or Russia, despite having met the qualifying standards.

Russia has cleared him to ski for Canada, but 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.

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.

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.

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

"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 and the trips to Russia to see his wife and son.

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 $20,000 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.

"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."

Canada's citizenship act 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."