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Cedric Berrest and Julien Bahain of France react after the Men's Double Sculls final at the World Rowing Championships in Bled September 2, 2011. (Srdjan Zivulovic/REUTERS)
Cedric Berrest and Julien Bahain of France react after the Men's Double Sculls final at the World Rowing Championships in Bled September 2, 2011. (Srdjan Zivulovic/REUTERS)

Olympic medalist gives up French flag to row for Canada in Rio Add to ...

Julien Bahain has given up rowing under the French flag. The Olympic medalist is preparing to move to Victoria at the end of the summer to compete for Canada in sculling at the 2016 Rio Games.

A bronze medalist at the Beijing Games in 2008 and a leading member of the French rowing team, the 28-year-old dual citizen has not seen much of Canada beyond his mother’s hometown in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Moving from southern France to faraway Victoria, site of the national rowing centre, is part of the adventure, he says.

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“I had a great career in France. Now I’m ready to turn the page and continue in Canada. The Canadian team has the know-how to win medals, and if I can win something better than bronze for them, that would be even better,” he said from Toulouse, where he is currently based.

Mr. Bahain’s preferred sport is sculling, in which rowers operate two long oars in low-profile boats. Before his move in September, he intends to compete in European waters for Canada in the more leisurely looking sport of skiffing, in which the boats more closely resemble traditional rowing craft.

Swapping nationalities, while rare for Olympic-level athletes, is allowed after a two-year pause under current international rules. Mr. Bahain took two years off after a 10th-place finish in his event at the London Games in 2012.

During his hiatus, he set a French record in early 2013 when he rowed across the Atlantic with teammate Patrick Favre in 49 days.

Officials at Rowing Canada have asked the sport’s international body for clarification on the transfer, but say they are confident Mr. Bahain can compete for Canada. The national team has an open spot on a single-seat scull, so he could join without replacing anyone.

As officials look to field a full sculling team for the 2016 Olympics, Mr. Bahain is a welcome addition.

“It doesn’t happen very often that an athlete moves over, especially an athlete with Julien’s pedigree. We’re looking for him to help us, and if he can raise our standard, that’s only better,” said Peter Cookson, Rowing Canada’s high-performance director.

While Canada’s overall rowing effort has been successful – its rowers won six medals at the past two Olympic Games – Mr. Cookson said the country has not fielded a “top-notch” sculling team since the mid-1980s.

The world championship finals are at the end of August, and the team will start training for the Rio Games just as Mr. Bahain arrives.

“For Rio, 2015 is the second most important year, so his timing is quite good,” Mr. Cookson said.

An engineer by training, Mr. Bahain was born in Angers in western France. Identifying himself as “Franco-Canadian,” he said he has always wanted to cross the Atlantic. He was recently demoted from the top boat in France, but he said his decision was made before that.

“After 11 years in the French system, I think I’ve hit the saturation point. I just can’t see myself within the current situation any more, so I’ve decided to get out of it,” he said.

The departure of Mr. Bahain, who has won multiple world titles and European championships, was greeted with surprise in the French media. And the French rowing federation put out a statement after learning of his choice.

“We regret losing an element of Julien’s value but respect his choice, which is the fruit of a long reflection and we wish him full success in his sports career and life project in Canada,” French rowing spokeswoman Noémie Morin wrote.

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