stories

‘Their hearts are broken’ Meduza talks to Russian-American snowboarding gold medalist Vic Wild about Moscow's Olympic ban in South Korea

Meduza
12:16, 7 december 2017

Olympic gold medalist snowboarder Vic Wild

Egor Aleev / TASS / Vida Press

On the evening of December 5, the International Olympic Committee announced its decision to ban Russia’s national team from the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. The IOC will allow Russian athletes to compete in next year’s Olympics only if they’ve never been suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs and only if they agree to participate under the “neutral” Olympic flag. One of the Olympians affected by this decision is Russian-American snowboarder Vic Wild, who acquired Russian citizenship ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, where he won two gold medals for Moscow — a feat for which Vladimir Putin awarded him the Order for Merit to the Fatherland. Meduza spoke to Wild about the IOC’s verdict.

What was your first reaction when you learned about the International Olympic Committee’s decision?

I assumed this was going to happen. Honestly, I’m really bummed out. It’s very upsetting. I’ve looked into this, to try to understand this whole Sochi scandal, and there’s just not very much real evidence that anybody did anything. I’m not saying that nothing happened. Maybe something did happen. I don’t know. But there’s no really clear evidence that says the athletes knew about the system or that the athletes participated in the system.

So what are they doing going after so many athletes? They’re already up to 25, and I’m sure there will be more. Most of these people — and I know some of these athletes — their hearts are broken. They don’t deserve this. Unless you have real proof that somebody’s doing something, you have to presume that people are innocent, instead of just saying, “Well, you could have been involved with these other people, therefore you’re guilty.” I think that’s quite dirty, and I think it would only happen to us in Russia. I think there’s this Western prejudice, this East vs. West rivalry that’s been going on for a long time. And as soon as there’s any time you can point the finger, people want to point it extra hard because, “Oh, it’s Russia. We want to attack these people. We want to go for them.”

They’re not going through the normal standard procedure, through a lawful procedure, to say whether or not these people actually did what they claim. It’s hard for me to articulate this. I haven’t really talked about it with anyone yet.

Do you ever get the feeling that everything tied to the Sochi Olympics — even the happiest moments — is gradually becoming tainted and the whole experience is becoming some kind of awful mistake?

No. No! There’s nothing against Alena [Zavarzina, Wild’s wife and a Sochi 2014 snowboarding bronze medalist] and me. We went to Sochi and we did what we did the right way, like many other athletes. Nothing can ever take that away. I still look back on everything and I’m so proud. If anybody ever questions how I won the Olympics twice, I can say honestly that I felt like I had 140 million Russians helping me down the slope, cheering for me. I really had a reason to win. It really made me feel super special to do that for so many people who were looking for that positivity. It was a very beautiful experience. This [ban in South Korea] doesn’t change it for me at all.

For me, what will be weird is going to Pyeongchang under a neutral flag, if that’s what we decide to do. But we haven’t decided yet. I want to talk to some of the Summer athletes who are competing now, like [110-meter dash world champion] Sergey Shubenkov, or some of the other athletes who have competed under the neutral flag, so I can understand what it’s like. But that’s not something that I’m looking forward to. It’s embarrassing.

If I felt like Russia deserved it, then it would be different. But I truly believe that this is not the right way. I really don’t believe that so many people were involved. It’s possible, yes, that some stuff happened. But I don’t think that it was on the scale that they’re portraying it to be. I don’t think it was such a big system. If it was such a big system, I would have seen it.

You never once overheard anything related to a doping program in the Olympic Games?

No! In all honesty, in Sochi especially, I didn’t speak any Russian at all. But my wife never heard anything, never said anything, and we never even thought about it. We were just normal athletes who were trying to do our sport. I don’t know how it works. I don’t know if people are doing that stuff. I can’t speak for everyone else. I can only say what I saw and what my wife saw. It was never even discussed.

And you have no regrets about deciding to compete for Russia?

No. I’m proud. I’m probably even more proud today than I was four years ago [to represent Russia].

Why’s that?

I live in Moscow. I see Russia. I’m a part of it — more than I used to be. I see, certainly, that things can be better — for all people. And in Russia. I’m now seeing and probably understanding a little bit more about people’s views of the West that are negative.

I can understand better where people come from when they don’t like the West, because I understand what it feels like to be a little bit, I would say, oppressed. I know what it feels like to be put down and made to think I shouldn’t be proud of whom I represent and what I represent. And that makes me want to fight even harder. That’s just my personality. I don’t like to see people getting bullied. I like to see everybody get a fair shot.

I don’t believe that the athletes especially in this situation have had a fair opportunity to prove their innocence. Because if this whole scandal is real, the competitors are not the ones who should be taking the hit. It’s the people who organized the situation. They’re the ones who are to blame. We all know who those people are.

But this is only true if the whole story is real, and honestly I think it’s silly even talking about it. Why don’t they have any proof? Why don’t we have any real information? Like what we use in court, in a real system of law. I don’t see anything like that. I just see stuff that some guy [whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov] writes down. Now maybe he’s telling the truth, but maybe he’s not. I don’t know. I’m not gonna tell you that the guy’s a liar or that he’s telling the truth — no one knows. But how can everybody automatically trust that this person’s telling the truth? No one would believe me, so why is everyone believing him? How is that fair? Around the world, a court of law needs proof and real evidence. But with sports, it’s different. [Apparently] you don’t need the same type of strict proof. Anything can be evidence to them. It’s not right.

Have you encountered any negative pressure on you personally? Maybe Americans writing to you on social media?

No. Never. You know, this is another funny thing: I’m the American. I’m the one who has a better view than anybody, but nobody’s ever asked me a question about it.

And what about from ordinary fans or something?

No. I talk to my friends. I tell my friends what’s going on. That’s about all. I’m not such a big star. When Americans think of the Olympics, they don’t think of me. I’m very far down the line. [Laughs.]

You’re only a double Olympic champion!

I know! But Americans don’t give a crap. Americans care about American football.

Did anyone from the U.S. contact you after the Sochi Olympics and try to discuss your possible return to America?

No. Never. You know, I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to America for anything more than a vacation. I don’t really identify so much with Americans anymore — even though I’m a pretty stereotypical American person, I guess. I’m kinda over it. I like the new life that I live. I like the things that I do. My business and my life right now is generally in Europe and in Moscow.

Vic Wild and his wife, Alena Zavarzina, at the Sochi Olympics, February 2014
Dylan Martinez / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

You really mean that?

I mean, I hope so. I haven’t thought about a lot of this stuff, so I can say stupid crap sometimes. I tell the truth, I hope. I’ve always been a person who’s not afraid to live life differently. Right now, I’m pretty upset. Everybody’s looking for a story. Everybody’s looking to create a big scandal.

If people were doping and they had all the evidence, then I’d understand it. But they have a tiny little bit of evidence, and they say, “Ah, okay! Let’s use this!” and everyone pushes and pushes to make a story out of something that doesn’t necessarily exist. It’s only about the clicks and the numbers and the money and the notoriety. It’s all about getting a name, these people who are pushing some of these stories. The problem is that some of it isn’t facts. And some of the athletes who have been banned — I guarantee you — are clean. And they’ve now been banned for life. And they’re not dirty athletes. I think that’s unacceptable, and it’s a shame. It sucks. What if it were me? How would I feel? What if you were one of these athletes? You wouldn’t feel good about that — it’s your whole life. A lot of people do things the right way, and this is just a shame.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “there’s no smoke without fire”?

Okay, yeah, something probably happened in Sochi. Probably something happens in every single Olympics. That doesn’t make it right. It’s still wrong. The people who ran the doping operation — that’s bullshit. That sucks. But you hear about this in every Olympics. Why don’t we talk about the Chinese? All of a sudden the Chinese have the Olympics and they win every medal. Weird!

Just look at the Americans, c’mon. The last time the Olympics were held in Los Angeles [in 1984, which the USSR boycotted], look at what was going on at, I believe, UCLA. There was an interesting story I read in Vice Sports saying that they could have had their own system. American sports aren’t run by the state, they’re run by Nike. And by big money corporations and universities handling billions of dollars. So of course the state is never going to be a part of the doping scandal in America, but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t taking drugs all the time.

If some of this stuff [with Russia] is true, okay. But now you’re going after athletes whom you don’t know. Ninety percent of the athletes might have been clean. Ninety-nine percent of them might have been clean! We don’t know. So maybe these 25 athletes [did it]. Maybe. But maybe half of them didn’t. When you start saying, “Ah, these people are doping!” because they’re named on a piece of paper, that’s unacceptable and it’s wrong. If it’s true that these people’s samples may have been changed, that’s not up to the individual athlete. We don’t have control over the samples when we give them away.

If you can prove that an athlete really knew that he was a part of the system, then okay they might have a case. But what I see, I really don’t understand. And I don’t think there’s enough [evidence] to charge so many of these guys and girls. If their flag was the American red, white, and blue, or the Canadian or German flags, I do not think there would be such a collective punishment. That’s what I’m seeing: this prejudice against eastern countries. They think, “They must be bad. They’re Russia. They’re probably all guilty; let’s just ban them all.”

I think that just leads to more and more problems. Who knows what this will create in the future? We just don’t know where this is going to take us. I see the world from a pretty interesting perspective. I see it from many, many sides. It’s definitely sad, and plus I’m here with my Russian team — we’re in Italy snowboarding. I look at my teammates and I know that these guys are cool, and they’re good guys. They look at me the same way, I think. (I hope, anyways.) But we know that all the other countries are looking at us with skepticism, and that doesn’t feel good.

No one’s ever said anything about me, and I know who I am. And I know that some of these guys [on other teams] wish that I wasn’t competing. That sucks.

Your competitors have suspicions about you?

Nobody will say it to my face, but I hear things. I embarrassed everybody and kicked everybody’s ass. There was only one guy who was even close to me, Žan Košir. Other than that, it was easy. And of course those guys whom I beat would probably like to find an excuse for why they lost to me.

Are there some sports where doping isn’t much help? Like with figure skating? (Except maybe for weight loss?)

I don’t think that’s true at all. After all, why wouldn’t a figure skater want to take steroids? In any sport, you can benefit from certain performance-enhancers. It doesn’t matter what you do. I’m not saying that figure skaters are taking drugs, but my point is that they’re an advantage in any sport. In some sports, maybe it’s more of an advantage, sure. The biggest advantage would be in any cardiovascular, endurance-type sport. Or with super explosive stuff: sprinters, powerlifters, and things like that.

I think another thing that’s funny is how 28 athletes go to the hearings and then they tell one athlete, “Ah, you’re fine.” Want to know why that happened? It’s because she’s a figure skater,* and they don’t want to mess with figure skaters. Because they’ve got the money. It’s true. It’s a fact. They saw the figure skater, and they said, “We do not want to mess with a figure skater. It’s gonna be way too hard. It’s gonna be a lot easier to go after a bunch of guys who Nordic skiing and whatever — skeleton and bobsleigh.” Because it fits the mold.

They don’t want to point to an 18-year-old beautiful girl and say that she’s taking drugs. Because it doesn’t look good, and their case would become very difficult, because the public would look at that girl and say, “She doesn’t look like she’s taking steroids. She’s beautiful. She’s a beautiful little girl — she doesn’t do that!” If we look at this from a real perspective, the truth is that this is all about money. And the IOC had to make a money decision.

The American sponsors that run the Olympics — let’s be real here: Coca Cola, McDonald’s, General Electric, the list goes on — they said, “No. The American public does not want to see the Russians in the Olympics. You need to do it.” And the IOC sits back and looks at the books, and says, “Russia’s only 140-some million people. America has this many people, and they’re going to spend this much money, and all the money is coming from there, so we gotta do what we gotta do.” That’s the way the world works, unfortunately, and that’s what’s happened here. If we want to throw the rest of it away, it’s all about money. It’s a fact.

But Russia is one of the largest countries in the world. This doesn’t count for anything?

Well it only has 140 million people, and its GDP per capita is only about $9,000. Let’s talk about the amount of money that runs from America and the amount of money that America brings to the IOC. I would guess that it’s maybe 10 times [what Russia brings]. It might be more. I don’t know. This whole world runs on money, and unfortunately it’s the little people who have to pay when this type of crap goes on. The athletes and others — the little people. But the people on top, who make the decisions, it doesn’t matter to them.

Do you follow the news in America anymore? Everything with Trump and so on?

[Laughter.] I laugh at it sometimes. The powers at play in America are going to push him out of office. Like everybody else, I think Trump’s an asshole. But does the guy deserve to not be president? No. The stupid ass American people voted for him to be president. That’s their problem. They gotta deal with it. You have to be stupid to believe all the crap that’s in the news. It’s ridiculous.

In The New York Times, every other article I read, for example during the election, was “Hillary Clinton’s so amazing. Bernie Sanders sucks.” Because they wanted Hillary fucking Clinton to be president. Now all they write about is how Russia sucks. Because they don’t like Russia for whatever reason. I don’t understand enough about The New York Times to know where they’re going, but they don’t like Russia and they don’t like Donald Trump, so they put those two things together and they kick it down the road. I don’t know, but the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Nobody is completely innocent, I’m sure, but to be as guilty as they make it look is obviously also bullshit. I’m tired of this, to be honest. I’ve been listening to this stuff for more than two years now. I can remember being in the exact same hotel at the exact same time last year, being super nervous, and thinking, “Oh my God. Look what’s going on!” But this is just the way the world works.

Even Meduza, I know you guys are going to want to write a story, and I know Meduza is very, very anti-establishment in Russia right now. And that’s fine. You guys have some really good news, actually. But also Meduza has an agenda, and your agenda is going to be to push against the powers in Russia, and that’s the way that it works. You guys aren’t neutral. Nobody is neutral, unfortunately. I don’t know a news station that really is.

A post shared by Vic Wild (@vicwild) on

So that’s a lot about the crap going on in America, but what about the crap happening in Russia? How do you feel about Putin, for example?

You know, I don’t know. Things are relative. If we look at where Russia was during Perestroika, which was probably one of the biggest power and money grabs ever, and take into account the early 90s and how people had to live back then (and I’ve listened to the stories from my wife), and it was tough. Then you move to the 2000s, when things are getting better and better, and oil prices are really helping the country, and obviously Russia went in the right direction.

Today maybe it’s true that you could say things have stalled and there’s not a lot of progress. Maybe it’s even going a bit backwards. But certain people are important in certain times and in certain jobs, and I don’t think, if people had an option to redo everything since Putin came to power, that many people would choose to go with someone else. For whatever reason, the way that Russia works is that he was probably the right person for the right time. I know that his time is coming to an end soon, and it will be up to Russians to say, “Okay, how do we want to go for our next five-year, 10-year plan? Where do we want to be in 2030 or 2040?” He’s not going to have a part in that — it’s up to the Russian people. It’s up to the people, at some point, to say, “Hey, this is how we want to live. And this is how we want things to be.”

But as long as people are apathetic and not really liberated, I don’t know how that will go. I have interesting conversations with a lot of people about it, and they talk about going deep into Russia’s history — all the way to the father of Ivan the Terrible. And it’s really interesting to hear people’s perspectives on what they think of Russia, but I don’t think that many of us really know. There are decisions that people in power have to make every day.

And we don’t know what’s really happening in foreign affairs. We don’t know what NATO wants to do. We don’t know what the EU wants to do. We don’t know what America really wants to do. Or what China wants. We don’t even know what Russia wants to do. I think it’s really easy to criticize. I can criticize Obama for killing all those people with drones and crazy stuff like that. You can also criticize, for example, the Chechen leader [Ramzan Kadyrov], but we don’t know what it’s like to be that person and to have his job. So sometimes I’m pretty nervous to question them, because you don’t know what you would do in that situation. And you also don’t know the threat.

It’s pretty imperial, if we want to look at the United States. They have military bases all over the world. They’ve created their own world order. And empires always need to expand. If they’re not expanding, they’re shrinking. So who knows. We don’t know what those people want to do. I wish the best for humanity. I like to say that I’m a global citizen. I want to see less violence and fewer wars, and more cool technology, more clean energy, more healthy living, and more happy living.

You must love John Lennon.

[Laughter.] Well as long as we have the nation-states ruling the world, we’re always going to have lots of crisis and always be on the edge of war. Because of nationalism and because of national interests. But you take away those nations and we don’t know what we’d have.

Would you say that you feel gratitude to Russia?

Yes, for sure. I came to Russia with nothing. I have a cool life. I like what I do. I really enjoy Moscow. Generally, I’m much happier every year, and I like my life a little bit more.

If you do compete in South Korea next year, it would be your third flag in the Olympics, after representing the U.S. in 2010 and Russia in 2014. How would you feel about that?

I can remember being 10 years old and thinking, “I’m gonna go to the Olympics, some day.” The idea to me was just “wow this would be super cool.” But on the other hand, it’s all a lie. I’m 31 years old now, and I see the world a lot differently. Unfortunately, a lot of this stuff is really just about money and power.

The fact is that you go to the Olympics and you put on this great show for a bunch of these Swiss guys who run the Olympics, and you make them a ton of money. Hundreds of millions of dollars. And you say, “Thanks. See you in four years. Or never again.” And they don’t do anything for you. They don’t offer you health insurance. They don’t offer you anything. And I’m not saying the gold medalist and the guy who finished dead last should be any different. It should all be the same. But the fact is that they don’t offer you anything.

I’ve got my medals at home that the IOC didn’t have to make. Those were made by the Russian Organizing Committee, and oh I’ve got some pins that the IOC sent me. Some gold Olympic pins. That was actually what they gave me, and I look at that and think, “Am I being used? Are we all being played? Are they just preying on our childhood dreams?”

So I’m split on how much I really care about what those five rings [in the neutral Olympic flag] really mean.

*Correction: An earlier version of this text mistakenly identified the “18-year-old figure skater” as Evgenia Medvedeva. Meduza apologizes for this error.

Interview by Alexandra Vladimirova