Anyone wondering just how tough the cross-country course for the Sochi Winter Games is, need look no further than the nickname that’s been bestowed on its final, lung-busting hill—“the Putin Climb.” Or the fact that when the macho-man Russian president himself stopped by to survey the venue in early January, he strapped on a pair of downhills and conducted his inspection from the top down.
Carved out along the edge of the Psekhako Ridge, some 1,500 m above sea level, the two interconnected five-kilometre loops will be a rude awakening for Olympians after the smooth and swift trails at Whistler’s Callaghan Valley in 2010. Technically demanding, filled with swift descents, sharp turns and a bunch of nasty grinds, Sochi’s “Laura” venue—named after the turbulent river that flows through it—has been designed to maximize the home-field advantage. But perhaps somebody forgot that not all native sons will be sporting the federation’s white, blue and red tricolour.
Ivan Babikov represented Russia at the 2006 Turin Games, placing 13th in the 15-km skate-ski race. Four years later, although the vanity plate on his SUV still read “Ruskki1”, he was racing for his adopted homeland of Canada, and piling up three top-10 finishes at the Vancouver Games, including a fifth in the 30-km pursuit, just 3.6 seconds off the podium. Since then, the short, stocky 33-year-old, who everyone calls “the Bulldog,” has become a persistent threat on the World Cup circuit, taking a silver at the 2012 Tour de Ski, and placing fourth in the 15-km at last year’s world championships. He’s a fierce competitor blessed with one particular gift—the more it hurts, the better he gets.
“I just have a way of dealing with the pain in my legs. I have no idea where it came from. Maybe it’s in my genes,” says Babikov. “But I just love the uphills. When I feel like there’s no way I’ll be able to go any further, somehow I just do.”
The area around Kozhva, the small village in Russia’s Komi Republic where Babikov grew up, 1,500 km northeast of Moscow, is mostly flat. But with an average winter temperature of -15°C there’s plenty of snow. Cross-country is a local passion, and the remote area had produced more than its share of national champs and Olympians over the years. Babikov, however, only fell into the sport around age 10 because of his love of soccer—Kozhva’s cross-country club fielded a summer team that he wanted to join. The cost was a promise to ski that coming winter. “I didn’t really like it. It was so cold and different,” says Babikov. He was also the smallest guy on the team. It was not a natural fit. “I don’t know how many times I came last, or second-last,” he says. “But I didn’t mind because I was hanging out with my friends, and I never gave up.”
After his father’s death when he was 14, Babikov and his family moved to the nearby city of Pechora, where he completed high school, and then went on to study physical education at Syktyvkar University, all the while continuing to ski. His older sister, Susanna, had emigrated to Canada in the late 1990s, and wanted Ivan and his mother, Tatiana, to follow. In 2003, after completing his degree, he took her up on the offer, moving to Richmond Hill, north of Toronto. It was not a happy time. Babikov had left behind his wife, Svetlana, and their newborn son, Sergey. The best job he could find was stocking freezers at a supermarket.
That winter, he joined an Ontario cross-country team and went on to win most of the races he entered. The prize money, however, was peanuts—barely enough to allow him to fly home in the summer to visit his wife and child. So the next year, Babikov joined a U.S.-based team as well, hoping to earn enough to bring Svetlana and Sergey to Canada. “I was doing so many races. Sometimes two or three a week,” he says. “On the weekends, I’d race, then jump in the car and drive a few hours and do another. It was crazy.”
Canadian citizenship didn’t come fast enough for the 2006 Olympics, so he returned to Russia and earned a spot on its team. For the next couple of seasons he continued to ply the U.S. and Canadian ski circuits, earning the odd distinction of being a national champion on both sides of the border in 2008. The passport, the international ski federation licence to compete as a Canuck—and the government funding—finally arrived that summer. And in 2009, Babikov won an 11-km pursuit race in Italy, becoming the first Canadian man to take gold on the World Cup circuit in 20 years.
Easygoing and gregarious, with a kidder’s nature, Babikov has become the heart of Canada’s surprisingly strong cross-country team. “He’s genuinely happy for us when we do well,” says his World Cup roommate Lenny Valjas. “It doesn’t matter if he finished behind or in front of you. He’ll make you feel good.” Alex Harvey, the winner of three medals on this year’s Tour de Ski, and Devon Kershaw, who finished second overall on the World Cup circuit in 2012, or even Valjas, who has found five podiums in just two seasons, might be more talented, but no one on the team works harder. “Everyone knows he will give everything he has in races,” says head coach Justin Wadsworth. When Babikov took silver at Val di Fiemme in 2012, the same Tour de Ski stage he won in 2009, it was on a course where the final four kilometres are straight up, at a 28 per cent grade, going all out. “Another couple of hundred metres and he might have fallen over dead,” recalls Wadsworth. This year Babikov placed fourth in that ski-skate stage, despite breaking a pole early in the race.
No Canadian man has ever won a medal in cross-country at the Olympics, but after two individual fifth-place finishes and a fourth in the team sprint in Vancouver, as well as a sprint bronze for Harvey and two fourth-place finishes at last year’s worlds, there is a feeling a breakthrough is near. “In Vancouver, we were dark horses, nobody expected anything from us,” says Babikov. “But being so close to the podium and having it slip away from you, it leaves you with a bad feeling.”
Sochi is still home ground of a sort. He has his Russian passport, and it’s the language he and Svetlana speak at home in Canmore, Alta. At the test event at the Laura venue last year—the only chance the rest of the world has so far had to race on the course—Babikov came 17th, but he’s sure he can do better. His mother will be there to cheer him on, and so will many Russian friends. (Svetlana, Sergey and their “really official Canadian” son Daniel, now one and a half, will stay home and cheer the TV.)
Sometimes he catches himself thinking about what might be in February. “Who doesn’t visualize themselves on the podium with a medal? It’s impossible not to,” says Babikov. It’s almost the same dream he had as a kid back in Kozhva. Only now the flag and the anthem are Canada’s.
Editor’s note: Story has been updated to correct Alex Harvey’s name.