The two-time gold medalist from White Salmon, Klickitat County, gained Russian citizenship to advance his Olympic hopes. Then, as Russia was caught in a doping scandal, he was forced to wait 18 uncertain months before he knew he would be admitted entry.
BONGPYEONG, South Korea — The competitive portion of Vic Wild’s experience at the Pyeongchang Olympics lasted less than three minutes, consisting of three runs Saturday afternoon down the parallel giant slalom track at Phoenix Snow Park. It ended with a couple seconds of stand-up snowboarding, an admission of defeat in the round of 16, four victories short of defending the gold medal he won fours years prior.
What had led to his performance, and what followed, provided apt and fascinating bookends to one prominent facet of these Olympics. Wild, an American-born snowboarder who gained Russian citizenship to advance his career prospects and competed under the Olympic Athletes from Russia flag, waited 18 uncertain months before he knew he would be admitted entry. Once his event concluded, he left behind his first comments of the Games, 19 minutes of philosophical musing and scorched earth.
Wild said the International Olympic Committee and International Skiing Federation owed him an apology. He urged Olympic athletes to unionize. He said the IOC had made him feel like “another unit for them to create profits off of.” He said he identifies not with nations, but with local communities. He said the Russian Olympic Committee offered no support in his quest to determine his eligibility for Pyeongchang. He referred twice to his home — once regarding White Salmon, Wash., and once regarding Moscow. He said his Olympic spirit had been damaged, but “those wounds can be healed.”
“I was pretty sure I was coming,” Wild said. “I should have known a long time ago. The IOC should have said, ‘You’re a two-time Olympic medalist. We can’t leave you in the dark.’ They never did that. FIS never did that. I truly believe both of them owe me an apology.”
Four years ago, Wild owned one of the most unusual backstories of the Sochi Olympics. His sport, alpine snowboarding, receives effectively no support from the United States Olympic Committee. Believing he had the talent, but not the resources, to compete at the highest level, he shopped for another nation. He had married Russian alpine snowboarder Alena Zavarzina, and after a long negotiation, he gained Russian citizenship. In Sochi, Zavarzina won a bronze medal. Wild won two golds and received, from Vladimir Putin, an Order For Merit to the Fatherland Award.
“This all has been a dream,” Wild said Saturday. “I never could have imagined having one medal at the Olympics. Then to have two golds like that in front of the home crowd, my wife getting the bronze, it’s been the most beautiful thing I could have ever imagined to come from snowboarding.”
In the intervening time, Wild’s controversial life grew more complicated. Tensions between his birth country and adopted nation skyrocketed over the possibility Russian interfered with the U.S. presidential election. The IOC busted the Russian Olympic Committee for running a sophisticated, state-sponsored doping program. For athletes it believed doped, the IOC stripped medals and handed down bans. For ones it could not prove guilty, it allowed them to compete under the OAR name.
Before Saturday, Wild retained a mysterious quality in Pyeongchang. As the Games started, a reporter asked OAR spokesman Konstantin Vybornov if Wild would hold a news conference before his competition, as is standard for many high-profile Olympians. Vybornov said no Russian athletes would be speaking before competition with Western media outlets, “especially Vic Wild.”
But after he competed, Wild provided some of the most noteworthy verbal fodder of any athlete here. He started by saying he had not enjoyed the Olympic process, because doubt hovered over him and he did not know until roughly Feb. 1 whether he would be allowed to compete.
“You know, it’s been rough,” Wild said. “The New York Times, they emailed me 18 months ago saying I was taking steroids at the Olympics, and it broke my heart. It was really, really hard to focus with such outrageous crap that they said. All they were trying to do was get me to speak. But I had nothing to do with that. My wife had nothing to do with it. For them to try to pull us into it, just because they knew I speak English, was a dirty trick. That really sucked.”
New York Times sports editor Jason Stallman said reporters at the company attempted to contact many Russian athletes, including Wild, regarding the country’s alleged doping program.
“However, it is absolutely not true that we accused him or anyone else of doping,” Stallman said in an emailed response. “We have never published an article suggesting that he or his wife were linked to the doping program — and as far as we know, they have not been implicated. We’re sorry if Mr. Wild interpreted responsible reporting as ‘a dirty trick.’”
Wild claimed he doggedly tried to find out whether his blood and urine samples may be tainted. He said he “knew” he was clean, but he worried, with a conspiratorial tone, whether he still may face a ban.
“They were talking about samples being changed, so that made me nervous,” Wild said. “If somehow, someway, they were just doing everybody’s samples . . . but that’s not the case, so I’m good.”
For 18 months, Wild said, he tried to get the IOC to provide information regarding his case. He said he used Google to find the IOC phone number and cold-called.
“At first they tried to push me away,” Wild said. “They were like, ‘Nope, we can’t help you.’ I was like, ‘I’m a two-time gold medalist, and I need to talk to somebody.’ Then they sent me to someone else who said they don’t know. That’s as far as I got.”
An IOC spokesperson responded only by referring to a Dec. 5 announcement regarding its policy toward Russian athletes.
Wild didn’t spare the Russian Olympic Committee, either. He said officials there never helped clarify his status, either.
“Whenever there were any questions, it was always, ‘I don’t know,’ ” Wild said. “Anywhere I went, if it was above me, it was, ‘I don’t know.’ So nobody above me ever helped.”
Even without the events of the past four years, Wild would be a polarizing figure. For many, he is a mercenary who cast aside his country for a better chance at personal glory. For others, he pursued a likelier path to success and chose his new country out of love for his wife.
“Everyone respects what he did,” U.S. parallel GS racer Mike Trapp said. “He wasn’t getting what he wanted from the U.S. So yeah, he switched over to Russia. That worked out very well in his favor. For myself, I respect him highly. He saw what he wanted to do, saw a road to be able to do it, and he took it.”
Still, Trapp also illustrated the quarrel others have with Wild. Trapp has never been given the chance to compete for another nation. Even though he agreed the U.S. provides meager support for his sport, Trapp would never consider riding for another country, either.
“I’m American, man,” Trapp said. “I’m American. I don’t really want to go win a medal for another country.”
To those questions, Wild takes an idealistic and vaguely neutral stance. Wild said he has followed the example of his father, a Native American who was “not a square” and “lived life on his terms.” He believes his free-spirited upbringing allowed him the resolve to compete for Russia in the first place. Now, he says, he identifies as both American and Russian. Really, it seems he identifies as neither.
“I don’t have a nationalistic approach to life,” Wild said. “I try to identify with my surroundings. Growing up in White Salmon, I have a lot pride for White Salmon. Now I live in Moscow. I also have a lot of pride in Moscow, and I want to see things get better there. It’s more like that. I’m not a big flag person.
“Countries are massive, and people are very different throughout a huge country. I think when you start identifying with something so much bigger than yourself, I don’t even think you know what you’re identifying with. If you can keep it a little bit more local, focus on things around you, it’s a way to make way more impact and make your community a lot better for everybody who lives there.”
Wild is uncertain where his career will go next. He would like to continue snowboard racing, but he is 31 years old, and he does not known if he will maintain his level to compete at another Winter Olympics. Wild said he has other passions he aims to pursue outside of the sport. What those are, he cannot pinpoint for certain.
“Great question,” Wild said. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I can realistically do at this point in my life that can be really fulfilling. I’m still looking for that. I’m sure I’ll find it.”