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Nabokov Appeals Ineligibilty Ruling - 2002-01-23

Yevgeny Nabokov plays professional hockey for the San Jose Sharks, a U.S. team, but his life-long dream has been to play for the Russian Olympic Team. But the International Ice Hockey Federation says Nabokov is ineligible to compete in next month's Winter Olympics because he has already competed for another country.

The court of arbitration for sport will meet Thursday in Munich, Germany to decide whether the Sharks' goaltender should be allowed to take the ice in Salt Lake City for the Russian Olympic team.

The controversy surrounding Nabokov stems from a world championship game in 1994 in which he played for the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, where he was born. Under the rules of the International Ice Hockey Federation, once an athlete plays for one country he is not eligible to play for a different country.

Nabokov says he was only 19 years old at the time and assumed he would never be able to play hockey for Russia.

"Back in 1992, when all the separations [were] going on between all those republics, we did not have [those kinds of] choices," he explained. "We were told to play for Kazakhstan, because we were from Kazakhstan. They said that you are never going to be able to play for Russia. Your choice is only to play for Kazakhstan."

At the time Nabokov played for Kazakhstan he still had his old Soviet Union passport, not a Kazak passport. When he later had a choice, he chose Russian citizenship, which he still has, and even served in the Russian military while playing hockey for the Moscow-based Dinamo team.

Nabokov says he has tried to fulfill all of the rules to become eligible to play for Russia. He says these factors should be taken into account by the court in Munich when it decides whether he can represent Russia.

But Jannake Edvinsson, general secretary of the International Ice Hockey Federation, says no one has questioned the federation's rules until now.

"We have had no problems at all and the Soviet Union ceased to exist in the first of January 1992 so that has worked well until now with all the other countries," he said.

IIHF officials say the only way Nabokov could play for Russia would be if the organization's bylaws were changed. They say the earliest that could be done is in 2003, at the organization's next general congress.

The goaltender's supporters, including the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, say the sport's international federation should make allowances for what is an exceptional case.

If the court of arbitration rules in Nabokov's favor, he will be representing Russia when the Olympic flame arrives in Salt Lake City in February.