War in Ukraine The Russian athlete who opposed the war in Ukraine and can represent France at the Paris 2024 Games

Valeriia Liubimova, a cyclist specializing in BMX freestyle, fled Russia, where she was "in danger" because she opposed the war in Ukraine

War in Ukraine The Russian athlete who opposed the war in Ukraine and can represent France at the Paris 2024 Games

Valeriia Liubimova, a cyclist specializing in BMX freestyle, fled Russia, where she was "in danger" because she opposed the war in Ukraine. Now, with her residence in France, she aspires to get a medal at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games with the colors of her new country.

"I didn't want to end up in prison. But I dreamed of continuing to practice high-level sports," explains the 19-year-old athlete while contemplating the ramps installed at the Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines velodrome. This weekend the French Championship took place there, the first stage of a new sporting life that has taken a radical turn.

Everything happened "very quickly" for Valeriia Liubimova, eighth in the 2021 World Cup. She dreams again of an Olympic medal in Paris after believing that her career was definitively sacrificed on the altar of the war in Ukraine.

When he fled his country with his parents, brother and sister - "it became really dangerous as our position was opposed to that of the Russian government" - he first found refuge in Georgia. So she didn't speak a word of French. Her horizon seemed completely blocked.

It was then that his parents considered the possibility of changing their nationality "to continue playing sports, studying and having a future." The family spent three weeks sending emails to different federations asking for help. "And it was France that responded to me," she says.

"He contacted several federations, including ours," confirms Florian Rousseau, director of the Olympic program at the French Cycling Federation (FFC). "We started with a three-month reception and everything worked. This led us to take steps with sports and administrative institutions so that he could have a French passport. It happened very quickly."

With the visa in hand, Liubimova arrived in Montpellier, the epicenter of French freestyle BMX, in September 2022. She did it alone, her family stayed in Georgia. Her first and "biggest" challenge was to learn French to pass the language exam necessary to obtain citizenship.

Fifteen months later, he speaks very correct French, has learned the first verses of the Marseillaise and is talking to the merchants. "I like the mentality of people here. In Russia, if you go to the store, no one smiles at you. It's 'hello and goodbye'. In France, we have small arguments," insists Valeriia, who also studies Russian and English at the University of Montpellier.

In October he wore the French national team shirt for the first time during a phase of the World Cup in China. And at the beginning of December the consecration came when the IOC executive commission approved three requests to change the nationality of Russian athletes with a view to the 2024 Olympic Games, including his own.

The Russian Olympic Committee asked the IOC for explanations about this decision that "opened Pandora's box," according to its general secretary, Rodion Plitoukhine, lamented to the TASS agency.

For Liubimova, however, it is "miraculous." And for France it is a gift from heaven. "We are delighted, it is an opportunity for her but also for us. We lack density at a very high level among women," emphasizes Rousseau. "She brings a lot of her mentality, her determination. She is a worker, with great sporting potential," says BMX freestyle head coach, Florian Ferrasse.

But Liubimova's arrival has not made everyone happy. Laury Pérez, the only Frenchwoman at the highest level, believed she had her ticket to the Olympic Games in her pocket. But there will only be one place.

"Evidently, Laury took it a little badly, he considered her a direct competitor," agrees Ferrasse. "I put them on equal terms. They have an almost similar level," adds the coach, who knows that he will have to make "a difficult decision" with the aim of "looking for a medal" in July 2024.