Swiss put immigration worries aside to fete Russian-born snowboarder

ZURICH Wed Feb 12, 2014 11:42am EST

Switzerland's Iouri Podladtchikov celebrates victory after the men's snowboard halfpipe final event at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games, in Rosa Khutor February 11, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Switzerland's Iouri Podladtchikov celebrates victory after the men's snowboard halfpipe final event at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games, in Rosa Khutor February 11, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson

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ZURICH (Reuters) - Days after Switzerland voted to impose new barriers to immigration, the surprise victory of a Russian-born snowboarder nicknamed "I-Pod" at the Olympic Games in Sochi has led to an ironic outpouring of national pride.

Images of 25-year-old Iouri Podladtchikov, who defeated favored American Shaun White to win gold for Switzerland in the halfpipe, adorned the front pages of Swiss newspapers on Wednesday, jostling for space with headlines on the country's plans to curtail an influx of foreigners.

"Iouri is our Gold-Tsar," said the tabloid Blick. "It's a happy coincidence that Switzerland can celebrate an Olympic champion called Iouri Podladtchikov."

"To Olympic victory with guts and style", wrote the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper.

Born in Moscow, Podladtchikov, moved to Switzerland at the age of eight, when his father was offered a teaching position at Zurich's Technical University. The family had previously lived in the Netherlands and Sweden.

Podladtchikov, who speaks Russian, English and Swiss German, became a Swiss citizen in 2007.

Foreigners account for nearly a quarter of the country's 8 million strong population.

But their presence has fuelled fears in the Swiss population that their way of life is under threat, a worry seized on by the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), which campaigned for the tighter immigration controls that were narrowly approved in a referendum on Sunday.

"It's strange that, on the one hand, a lot of people voted 'yes' for this initiative. Now that we have a gold medalist they are very proud of this guy and he's not called Hans Mueller," said Georg Lutz, a professor of political science at the University of Lausanne.

The vote has unsettled Swiss businesses, including its big banking sector, which relies heavily on foreign labor. The Swiss government opposed tighter controls but now has three years to write the referendum result into law.

As part of a pact with the European Union that came into force in 2002, Swiss and EU citizens have been able to cross the border freely to work on either side so long as they had a job contract or were self-employed.

Switzerland's EU partners have warned that the vote could torpedo a broader set of agreements that cover everything from economic and technological cooperation, to public procurement, aviation and rail traffic.

ALL IMMIGRANTS

But the referendum result would apply to all immigrants, not just those from EU countries. In theory at least, families like those of snowboarder Podladtchikov could therefore be affected.

"In the future, people will and should be able to immigrate to Switzerland, the vote from last Sunday has no effect on this whatsoever," said Martin Baltisser, a spokesman for the SVP, in response to Reuters queries.

"The new constitutional article demands, however, that Switzerland should once again independently regulate and decide for itself, who should stay and for how long," he added.

Asked whether Swiss could be proud of Podladtchikov, Baltisser said: "We're very proud of the achievements of all our athletes at the Olympic Games. The birthplace or origins plays no role in this."

According to official statistics, net immigration to Switzerland averaged 77,000 per year between 2007 and 2012, with two-thirds coming from the EU.

People of foreign origin play prominent roles at all levels of Swiss society.

Credit Suisse, Switzerland's second-largest bank, and drug giant Novartis are run by Americans.

Top soccer players Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Blerim Dzemaili are ethnic Albanians, while Innocent Emeghara was born in Nigeria and Johan Djourou is from the Ivory Coast.

A photo circulating on Twitter following the referendum imagined the national soccer team without immigrants. All but three players were scrubbed out of the picture.

Podladtchikov scored 94.75 with his "You Only Live Once" flip, a trick involving 1440 degrees of rotation, to win gold.

He told Blick: "Russian is my native language. But when I miss my homeland, I miss Switzerland."

(Additional reporting by Brian Homewood; Editing by Noah Barkin)

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