ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Arkady Vyatchanin loves his country.
He just doesn’t want to represent Russia at the Olympics.
That stance has left the swimmer in legal limbo with the Rio Games less than five months away, the pawn in a political tug-of-war that again shows just how little the guys in charge actually care about the athletes.
“I guess I underestimated the burden that I’ll carry,” said Vyatchanin, who lives and trains in the United States and wants to swim for Serbia in what very well could be his last shot at the Olympics.
Vyatchanin has an impressive resume. At the 2008 Beijing Games, he captured a pair of bronze medals, finishing behind American winners Aaron Peirsol in the 100-meter backstroke and Ryan Lochte in the 200 back. He also has four medals from the world championships – three silvers and a bronze.
After a disappointing performance at the London Olympics, where Vyatchanin failed to qualify for the final in either backstroke event, he had a falling-out with the Russian swimming federation over his decision to begin training in Gainesville, Florida, under renowned coach and longtime Lochte mentor Gregg Troy.
More troubling, Vyatchanin had serious concerns about just how committed his country was to the battle against doping, a stance that turned out to be very well-founded given the almost daily revelations of ramping cheating throughout Russian sports.
Tennis star Maria Sharapova acknowledged this week that she had tested positive for a banned substance, while the country’s track and field athletes remain barred from international competition – including, possibly, the Olympics – after a ruling Friday found “significant work” was still required to clean up a major doping scandal.
“It is pretty wide open right now with all the doping cases,” Vyatchanin said, a sadness in his voice. “I was afraid that I could get caught up with that stuff just for raising my voice.”
He began searching for a new country, sending letters to virtually every European nation with a swimming team. He also made inquiries with the United States, but learned the process for becoming a citizen might not be completed in time for Rio.
Knowing he would be 32 by the time of the Olympics, Vyatchanin couldn’t afford to let another quadrennial pass him by.
A year ago, he received his Serbian passport, which should’ve been enough to lock up his trip to South America.
Not so fast, said international governing body FINA, which invoked an onerous residency rule to hold up Vyatchanin’s bid to switch countries, according to Vyatchanin.
“The bottom line in my case is that I did not break any rules,” he said. “All I want to do is swim.”
When FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu was questioned in an email about Vyatchanin’s status, the organization’s legal team came back with a vague reply that merely said, “Thank you for your email and interest in the sports of aquatics. Please note that the request for changing the sport nationality of Mr. Arkady Vyatchanin is under consideration in FINA.”
Granted, FINA has some well-founded concerns about athletes hopping from country to country, sometimes merely looking to find a team better suited to their Olympic goals.
But Vyatchanin hasn’t competed for Russia in more than three years, skipping the last two world championships, and the doping scandal in his country would seem reason enough to allow him – and any other clean athlete, for that matter – to move on.
“I love my country,” he said. “I don’t like the government, though.”
This has been a poignant ordeal for Vyatchanin, who would certainly prefer to race for his home country at the Olympics. While he would be incredibly proud to win a medal for sports-mad Serbia, which is giving him a chance to fulfill his dreams, there would surely be mixed emotions about having a banner other than Russia’s raised in his name.
“It is not right that a person should have to leave his country because of fear,” he said. “At the same time, I don’t think the Olympics or any other major sporting event should be about countries. It’s about who’s the fastest swimmer. It’s about the competition.”
There are no regrets about moving to the U.S. to train in 2011. If anything, Vyatchanin only wishes he had started the process to find a new country even sooner.
“I didn’t feel like I needed permission,” he said. “I’m a grown-up man. I felt I could make the decision that is better for me.”
Vyatchanin, who is getting sponsorship help from the New York Athletic Club, remains hopeful that everything will work out in the end. As he says on his Twitter profile: “Never give up!”
There is only one thing for FINA to do when it finally rules on Vyatchanin’s case:
Let him swim.