South Korea isn’t expected to dominate the 2014 Sochi Olympics. But there is one Winter Olympics event which the South Koreans have historically done very well in – short track speed skating. In fact, South Korea has more medals for short track skating than for all other Winter Olympic events combined.
This Saturday, a skater born and raised in Seoul, South Korea won gold in the 2014 Sochi Olympics 1,000m men’s speed skating event. However, he didn’t raise the South Korean flag, nor did he sing the South Korean national anthem. Rather, Viktor Ahn was draped in the Russian flag and sang the anthem of the country he adopted in 2011 after circumstances led him to conclude that he would not be given a fair opportunity to compete in his native South Korea.
Ahn, who was born Ahn Hyun-soo, won five consecutive world championship titles and three Olympic gold medals representing the land of his birth. His name is a household name in a country where athletic victories are often associated with patriotism and national pride.
Understandably, his victory while wearing Russian colors is a bitter pill for many South Koreans to swallow. Many South Koreans have voiced outrage, to the degree that The Times of India reports that the Korean Skating Union’s website crashed due to heavy traffic, most of it complaints about Ahn.
The majority of the ire doesn’t seem to be directed at Viktor Ahn, however.
Instead, South Koreans seem to be blaming corruption in the country’s sports programs. The situation is apparently serious enough that it merits the attention of South Koreas President Park Geun-hye. The New York Times reports that President Park said this after Ahn won the bronze for Russia in the men’s 1500m:
“The player Ahn has the best skills but he cannot seek his dream as a South Korean but is playing for another country. We must ask ourselves if his problem was not due to the unreasonableness in our sports community.”
Other South Koreans are expressing similar concerns. NBC Sports quotes a schoolteacher in South Korea as saying, “I am glad to see Ahn smiling, but somebody has got to explain why he is holding a Russian flag.”
According to the New York Times report, Ahn was ousted from the S. Korean national speed skating team because of his age and injuries he had sustained since winning his three gold medals in Turin in 2006.
Ahn’s father has expressed regret that his son felt the need to compete for another country in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, saying:
“As a Korean, I wish he were singing the Korean national anthem. But however he tried in South Korea, he could have no opportunity to recover his reputation.”
As for Viktor Ahn himself, NBC Sports quotes him saying that he wanted “to train in the best possible environment and I proved my decision was not wrong.” He also said, “I will share everything I had in mind after Sochi is over.”
Will Ahn win more medals for Russia at the 2014 Sochi Olympics before he’s done? Either way, many of the people of South Korea want something done to prevent other athletes from feeling that they need to emigrate in order to have a fair chance to compete.