Updated: Monday, 17 February 2014 10:23 | By Agence France-Presse

Russia's 'foreign legion' finally marches to medals

After years of making little impact on Russia's sporting fortunes, foreign-born athletes poached from abroad are finally making their mark at the Winter Olympics.


Russia's 'foreign legion' finally marches to medals

Russia's silver medalist Vladimir Grigorev (L) and gold medalist Victor Ahn pose on the podium during the Men's Short Track 1,000m Medal Ceremony during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 15, 2014 - by Antonin Thuillier

Russia has been much criticised at the Sochi Games for allowing talent to slip the net, with several athletes who were born or brought up in Russia winning gold for other countries.

But the reverse has also come true in the last days which have seen a South Korean-born short track skater win a historic gold for Russia, a Ukrainian-born pairs skater win double gold and another Ukrainian-born short track skater win silver.

Such athletes from abroad who take Russian nationality are known in Russian as "legioneri" (legionnaires), a reference to the French Foreign Legion of soldiers hired from abroad.

After the disaster of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games where Russia won just three golds, Russia’s sports bosses were prepared to do almost anything to find the best athletes.

In the boldest move, the short track speed skater formerly known as Ahn Hyun-Soo, who won three golds for South Korea in 2006, was granted Russian citizenship in 2011 and immediately became Russia’s number one short track star.

Under his new name of Victor Ahn, he won gold in the men’s 1,000 metres in Sochi to follow his bronze in the 1,500.

In one of the strongest images of Russia’s Games, he was followed across the line by teammate Vladimir Grigorev, another "legionnaire" who was born in the northern Sumy region of Ukraine.

-'A mixed experience'-

After initially representing Ukraine, Grigorev switched allegiance in 2006 to Russia due to a shortage of available ice skating facilities in his native country.

"Should we really be happy (for their victory)?" asked the Sovietsky Sport daily. "Where are our guys?"

But it added: "Until now our experience with naturalised Russians has been, to put it mildly, mixed. Victor Ahn and Vladimir Grigorev are among those few legionnaires who managed to buck this trend."

The other great non-Russia born success of the Games has been Tatiana Volosozhar, who won team gold with her pairs partner Maxim Trankov and then a sensational gold in the pairs competition itself.

Volosozhar was born in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk and represented Ukraine at numerous competitions with her pairs partner Stanislav Morozov, including the 2006 Turin Olympics.

When Morozov retired, she looked to Russia and linked up with Trankov, a move barely opposed by the Ukrainian federation who were only too aware of the poor facilities in Ukraine.

She received Russian citizenship in 2010, a process expedited by the fact that her parents are ethnic Russians who had moved to Ukraine on Soviet military service.

Volosozhar had been Morozov's real life partner. She is now reported to be in a relationship with Trankov.

She succeeded in winning gold in the pairs where another naturalised Russian –- Japan-born Yuko Kavaguti –- failed. She and her Russian partner Alexander Smirnov had come fourth in Vancouver.

-'They need to stay forever'-

US women's basketball star Becky Hammon became a naturalised Russian citizen and played for Russia in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. 

However her switch was marred by a nasty legal battle with her Russian club and she now plays her club basketball back in the US.

Top Lithuanian-born modern pentathlete Donata Rimsaite switched allegiance to Russia in 2010 in a sudden move that created shockwaves in her home country.

The Lithuanian Olympic Committee blocked her from taking part in London 2012, a move that deprived Rimsaite and Russia of a possible medal.

But the success of Ahn and the other legionnaires, has gladdened Russians who were galled to see the likes of the Siberia-born Anastasia Kuzmina take gold for Slovakia in the biathlon.

"We need to persuade people from other countries to perform for Russia. And stay here for ever," said Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the nationalist Liberal Democrat party. 

"The idea of legionnaires should work in our favour."

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