How Canada deepened its Olympic ranks with immigrant athletes

February 5, 2018

By Ottawa Citizen |

Ivan Babikov was standing in a freezer in a Toronto grocery store in the summer of 2003, shivering and stocking shelves with ice cream, wondering just how a freshly arrived 23-year-old immigrant from Russia’s frozen north was going to make a life for himself in Canada.

“I didn’t really plan on being a skier,” Babikov says, from his home in Canmore, Alta. “I had a wife and son back in Russia. I had to think about supporting them.”

Three years later, after finding his way back into cross-country skiing — a sport he had excelled at in Russia — Babikov emerged as the best new hope on the Canadian national cross-country ski team. Alas, he wasn’t a Canadian, but with the encouragement of his coaches who were he competed for Russia at the 2006 Winter Olympics.

“I was torn,” he admits. “Most of the Russian coaches were looking at me, like, ‘You’re not one of us anymore. Go back to Canada.’

“But when I initially made the Russian team, and made the Games, it was like my dream as a kid come true: to compete for Russia, the greatest country in the world. And so it was stressful.

“I was torn. I was in between.”

Babikov emerged as an immigrant-athlete almost by accident, and got caught in an internal tug of war between the patriotism he had been infected with as a child and the future he imagined for himself and his family. (He competed for Canada in 2010 and 2014; today he is a national team coach.)

Most Olympic country hoppers are more calculated in their decision to switch sides. Some come from hot countries to pursue cold weather sports, some for better funding, some for a better shot at becoming an Olympian. Canada beckons not as some great beacon of openness and tolerance, but as a country of aspirational convenience. It is often only after the immigrant-athlete arrives that they realize they actually like the place and decide to stay.

(Formerly) Dutch speed skater, Ted-Jan Bloeman, saw his career dead-ending in the Netherlands. He was stressed out by the ultra-competitive environment, he says, and hating a sport he had always loved, and so he decided to escape from a fun-sapping environment for an “adventure” in Canada. Bloemen’s father was originally from New Brunswick. Calgary had a speed skating oval. Why not?

Bloemen, the hyphenated-Canadian, has since emerged to set world records, and is a medal favourite heading into the Games. His adventure, which has included marrying Marlinde, his Dutch wife, has become a permanent move.

“I’ve been super happy in Canada,” he says. “I feel like I’m part of a team here, and feeling that makes me feel Canadian.”

Bloeman hasn’t completely severed his Dutch ties. In the anemic world of amateur sports funding, he has a sponsorship deal with Calgary’s Dutch Store.

“I eat a sandwich with butter and chocolate sprinkles every day for breakfast,” he says.

Chris Spring, a bobsledder, is Australian-born, and discovered sliding while on a work visa in Canada. The Australian funding model for bobsledding was next to nil, and so Spring swapped countries, a leap that allowed him to pursue his sport but would also inform his understanding of self.

Read more