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Russian Joins U.S. Weightlifting Olympic Team

Washington, July 11 (RFE/RL) - Russian-born Konstantine Starikovich dreamed all his life of competing in the Olympics, only he never thought he'd do it as a United States citizen.

The 28 year old Starikovich is the newest member of the U.S. Olympic weightlifting team. In an interview with RFE/RL, Starikovich said his interest in weightlifting started as a young boy in the city of Sverdlovsk in the former Soviet Union. His father, an army officer, helped him to train. A few years later, Starikovich became the junior weightlifting champion of U.S.S.R.

After serving his obligatory time in the Soviet army, he returned to weightlifting and participated in several international competitions. In 1991 he received an invitation from the Colony Athletic Sports Club, in Albany, in the American state of New York to compete in a series of state games. He accepted and during his stay decided to seek permanent residency in the United States. He said his reasons were mostly economic and not political or religious.

"I was young and thought I would try myself in a different environment," he said. "I believe that any person can decide to live anywhere they want."

In 1992, Starikovich married an American woman, gave up weightlifting and, to support his family, worked a series of jobs, including making pizzas and moving furniture. But he said that during that time he never gave up his dream of weightlifting in the Olympics.

Last year, Starikovich suddenly decided he was ready to resume his career.

"I knew I could do it," he said. "I was ready for the challenge."

Starikovich hired a coach and began immediately participating in local and state competitions. He broke records and began to get noticed. In December 1995, he attended a national competition, placing first. It guaranteed him a spot in the Olympic trials.

But, Starikovich said, there were still many obstacles to be overcome. He said his quick come-back was a unwelcome surprise to many of his fellow U.S. competitors who he says "became jealous" of his success. He was also not yet a U.S. citizen as his naturalization ceremony was scheduled for April 12, 1996.

Just as he was to begin serious training in the U.S., Starikovich said he got word that his father, still in Russia, was very ill. Worried, Starikovich said he went to George Greenway, executive director of the U.S. Weightlifting Federation, and asked if he would be allowed to leave the country to visit his father. It was a concern to him since most Olympic competitors are required to be available six months before the games in order to complete a drug-testing program.

Starikovich said that Greenway told him he could be tested through the International Weightlifting Federation which has representatives in Russia.

However, while in Russia, Starikovich said that no one from the International Federation contacted him.

Starikovich returned to the States to attend his naturalization ceremony and file papers to permit him to compete in the Olympic trials. He missed the deadline by one day and asked for a waiver due to his unusual circumstances. Starikovich said that much to his shock, the U.S. Federation refused his request and Greenway claimed not to have spoken to him about drug testing while he was in Russia.

Starikovich said he hired an attorney to fight the Federation's decision and underwent the necessary drug testing. An arbitrator then ruled against the U.S. Federation and Starikovich was permitted to compete in the Olympic trials.

He placed fifth, guaranteeing him a spot on the team and the right to train with the others at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He moved there in mid-May and says it is "working out good" for him.

When asked about his current relationship with the U.S. Weightlifting Federation, Starikovich described it as "very difficult" and said his attorney is still engaged in a suit with them. Starikovich said it is his personal belief that the Federation does not like him because he is Russian.

Anthony Bartkowski, spokesman for the Weightlifting Federation, denied the accusation. He told RFE/RL "there is absolutely no disliking of Konstantin because of his nationality."

Starikovich said he tries to put the controversy behind him and focus on the Olympic games.

"It is every athlete's dream to compete in the Olympic games. It's not about winning the medal -- just being a part of the games is a very big honor. It's even a bigger honor for me because when I started my life here in the United States, I received a lot of help from ordinary people."

Starikovich said he hopes that making the U.S. Olympic team and doing well in the games will make those people proud of him and help to pay them back for all the assistance they gave him when he decided to live in this country.