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10 Aug, 2022 09:55

‘Big loss’ for Russia as star switches allegiances to Israel

Coaches commented on the decision by track cyclist Mikhail Yakovlev to change nationality
‘Big loss’ for Russia as star switches allegiances to Israel

Russian national team track cycling coach Sergey Kovpanets has said the departure of 21-year-old Mikhail Yakovlev to represent Israel will be a blow for his country.

Yakovlev won bronze in the keirin event at the 2021 World Championships and was seen as among his country’s brightest cycling prospects.

The youngster has reportedly already received Israeli citizenship and informed Russian coaches of his intentions to swap nationality at international competitions.

Yakovlev had set a new world record as recently as May when competing in the 200m flying trial at the Moscow Grand Prix.

Russian coach Kovpanets called it a “big loss for us” as the rising young talent departs.

“Imagine, a leader has grown who has just started to show results in 2021. And there was movement forward, the level of competition increased,” Kovpanets told RIA Novosti.  

“I am very sorry. We made many attempts to save the team, including thanks to additional financial means that encourage athletes to win the Russian Championship, set Russian records.

“Nothing foretold such a decision, because at the end of July [Yakovlev] competed at the Russian Championship. So, everything was planned for them earlier,” the coach added.

Kovpanets said the cyclist had made moves behind the scenes to change citizenship, without revealing his intentions along the way.

“Everyone is free to make their choice, but for us it’s a loss. I didn’t talk to him on this topic, he did everything very secretly, in early August he called the president of our federation and said he was changing citizenship,” said Kovpanets.  

“Having received a second passport, he will change sports citizenship in the near future, I think.

“Mikhail will miss the European Championship in August and the World Championship in October, and from 2023 he will be able to compete for a new country.

“I would not want anyone to follow his example. Maybe he will come to his senses, perhaps the climate will be difficult for him. Dual citizenship does not hurt anyone.”

Some Russian outlets have cited Yakovlev’s possible political views, as he has shared photos with the Israeli and Ukrainian flags on social media.

Yakovlev’s exit has been described in the Russian media as potentially the first significant loss since the sweeping sporting sanctions imposed on the country following the onset of the military campaign in Ukraine.  

Cycling governing body the UCI announced in early March that it was banning Russian and Belarusian teams from its competitions until further notice because of the conflict in Ukraine.

Riders from the two countries were, however, authorized to compete for teams registered outside Russia and Belarus, and under neutral status provided they were cleared to do so on an individual basis.

The bans imposed on Russian sport have led to occasionally heated discussions inside the country about athletes potentially seeking citizenship switches to allow them to compete.

State Duma Deputy Roman Teryushkov has proposed that athletes should be considered guilty of “treason” if they swap allegiances, although the Kremlin has suggested it is not aligned with that thinking.

Russian Sports Minister Oleg Matytsin has said he does not fear an exodus of sports stars, expressing his belief that the support provided in their homeland would be sufficient and that the current bans would sooner or later be lifted.