He’s known as “I-Pod” and he has scored the biggest upset at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics so far, defeating American superstar Shaun White to win the gold medal in the men’s snowboard halfpipe.
So what does Iouri Podladtchikov want to talk about Wednesday, the day after his big victory? Supermodel Kate Moss, the ineptness of most photographers and his “never ending quest for everlasting beauty.”
The Olympics are full of fascinating athletes, and snowboarding has certainly produced its share of characters. But Podladtchikov stands out.
He’s a 25-year-old Russian-born Swiss national who speaks Russian and German but responds to questions in English. He’s a budding photographer whose stated goal is to make people look better than they appear in the mirror, and he owes his gold medal to a girl he was trying to impress, and failed. He has also won a gold medal for Switzerland as an immigrant, just as the country moves to restrict immigration.
Such is Podladtchikov’s refreshing uniqueness he showed up to the press conference an hour late, dressed entirely in black, and then stayed for two hours, answering so many questions most reporters left long before he did.
When a CNN employee asked him to remove his sunglasses, Podladtchikov smiled and said: “No. I just want to show off. It’s the time to show off.” He eventually relented, but only after the interview was under way.
His engaging personality and Russian background have made Podladtchikov a fan favourite in Sochi. He can rarely go more than a few metres without being mobbed by adoring volunteers or spectators. It’s all a little surreal considering he left Russia as a child, when his parents, both mathematicians, moved to Zurich after his father landed a teaching job at a university.
It was on the streets of Zurich that Podladtchikov took up skateboarding and later snowboarding in the surrounding mountains, much to the displeasure of his parents, who had no interest in sports. Once, after suffering a severe concussion, his father banned him from all sports until he could beat him at chess.
“It took a month,” Podladtchikov said. “And he played without the queen.”
He eventually got good enough on a snowboard to represent Russia at the 2006 Turin Olympics, finishing dead last. Frustrated by Russian coaching, he switched allegiances to Switzerland for the 2010 Games in Vancouver, where he placed fourth. White won gold at both Games.
Heading into Sochi, Podladtchikov was considered a potential threat to White, although few snowboarding experts gave him much chance of actually winning.
However, he did it on his last run, laying down a near-perfect set of jumps and tricks, including one called the “yolo” (you only live once), his own invention, which involves two 360-degree turns.
Podladtchikov spent years trying to perfect the move, rarely daring to use it in competition until recently. He’d come up with the move while trying to impress a girl. She didn’t seem to care at the time, but when he finally got it right, she complained he hadn’t named it after her.
“We’re all just human beings,” he said. “If you impress a good-looking girl, your day is saved. It’s that simple.”
As he sat and waited for White to complete his final run Tuesday, Podladtchikov didn’t feel confident he would remain in first place. White had pulled off spectacular last runs before and he’d had the highest score in qualifying at Sochi. But he slipped and ended up fourth.
Podladtchikov cheered for White as he sped down the hill, hoping at the very least the American would overtake the two Japanese teenagers who were in second and third. The Swiss wasn’t cheering for them: They’d played it safe and avoided the difficult tricks, anathema to Podladtchikov, who considers the halfpipe “holy ground.”
“Some riders I don’t like to see win. Shaun, he deserves it,” he said. “[White] has won everything … and he’s going for triple corks [twists]. He has a never-ending commitment to the sport.”
There was much more on Podladtchikov’s mind Wednesday:
He said he wants to take a picture of Moss for the cover of Vogue magazine. He wants to put his medal in a Swiss bank, but only one that has a “cool name.”
And while White has carefully crafted his image and attracted a slew of sponsorship deals, Podladtchikov has little time for corporate backers and plans to enroll in university to study art history. “I need to have something to do with my brains,” he said.
As he rose to finally leave, he offered this thought on what he plans to do next: “I’m thinking of helping out people, being the good spirit in whatever you can do. Just bringing health and positive energy to this world.”