PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) – It was a feel-good love story about snowboarders that made Russia smile.
Four years later, Vic Wild and Alena Zavarzina are still married and still riding.
But boy did this get complicated.
Wild, the American-born rider who now competes for Russia, finished out of the medals, same as his wife, at the parallel giant slalom Saturday, closing a sad chapter to a journey that began as a fairy tale but turned into a drama about cheating, doping and figuring out who was to blame.
It was a small part of a much larger story about the strained, scandal-tainted relationship between Russia, the Olympics and the rest of the world.
“For 18 months, the IOC never told me anything,” Wild said after losing in the round-of-16 in a contest taken by Switzerland’s Nevin Galmarini. “No one would tell me if, somehow, some way, I was involved. That definitely put some gray hairs on my head.”
Wild knew he wasn’t involved. But since the Sochi Games, conversation about Russia and the Olympics has centered on the doping scandal that implicated dozens of Russians and eventually led to the country being officially uninvited to the Pyeongchang Games.
Still, in an attempt to appease Russia and allow clean athletes to compete, the IOC invited 168 athletes to come to Pyeongchang and compete in neutral uniforms as “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” Wild and his wife were among them.
The conclusion was that Wild and Zavarzina were never touched by the doping program that has been documented in a series of reports and investigations over the past two years – and disputed inside Russia.
“I always knew that I was clean,” Wild said.
But he said he didn’t receive official word that he was eligible until Feb. 1 – slightly more than a week before the Olympics started. And the man who made Russia look good at America’s expense at the Sochi Games by winning two gold medals while his wife won a bronze, conceded Saturday that he’s spent most of the last year and a half growing increasingly frustrated.
“I feel like, with the gold medals, when the Olympics come, I’m a representative of the Olympics,” he said. “I feel like I’ve got their back. And they don’t have my back. All I needed to hear was, ‘What’s going on?’ They didn’t do anything for me. It makes me feel like I’m, in a sense, just another unit for them to create profits off of.”
Such a shift from four years ago.
Back then, he became famous as the shredder from White Salmon, Washington, who didn’t get enough support from the U.S. ski team to make a go in PGS – a form of snowboarding that has never drawn viewers back in the States. He fell for Zavarzina on tour and, eventually, they got married in what Wild called “a full-on Siberian wedding.”
That gave him his Russian citizenship and he was fully embraced over a winning weekend in Sochi, taking gold in both the PGS and the parallel slalom, which was put into the Olympics as a one-time deal for the host country. Vladimir Putin awarded him the Order For Merit of the Fatherland.
“Best two days I’ve ever had,” Wild said.
These days, when he goes home to visit his family, he notices the strange looks. There is the doping issue. There is also the increasing tension over Russia’s relationship with the United States as tempers bubble over evidence of Russian meddling in the U.S. election.
“I kind of laugh it off,” said Wild, who lives full-time in Moscow. “I don’t worry about it too much. Obviously, I wish things were different.”
Zavarzina, who finished fourth in her event, did not come through the interview area. When asked if she endured the same sorts of uncertainty as Wild did regarding doping, he said: “Probably. But I don’t know for sure.”
What he is sure of is that he wasn’t part of the Russian doping program. But he felt abandoned – by the IOC, by his own country’s sports program, by the Olympics in general.
“Whenever I had any questions, it was, ‘I don’t know,'” he said.
And so, the man at the center of one of the most heartwarming stories of the 2014 Olympics does not feel the love this time around.
“It hurts my Olympic spirit a little bit,” he said.