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Viktor Ahn in Sochi spotlight for ‘defection’ to Russia 

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Published : 2014-02-12 11:56
Updated : 2014-02-12 16:18

Viktor Ahn rallies as he took the bronze in the men`s 1,500-meter short track speedskating race at the Adler Arena Skating Center during the 2014 Winter Olympics, Monday. (Yonhap)
Formerly known as Ahn Hyun-soo, Korean-turned-Russian short track speed skating star Viktor Ahn earned his adopted homeland a bronze medal in the men’s 1,500 meters at the Sochi Winter Olympics on Monday. 

The medal is hailed as “historic” in Russia, as it is the host nation’s first Olympic medal in the unpredictable, high-speed sport. 

Right after the race, Ahn held the press conference and revealed the story behind his decision to change his nationality. 

The former Olympic champion, who had avoided the media since arriving in Sochi, broke his silence by saying it was not an “easy decision” to change citizenship to Russia.

The 28-year-old won five world championship titles, as well as three gold medals at the 2006 Olympics, for his birth country Korea. 

However, he decided to switch allegiance to Russia in 2011 after being excluded from the Korean national team for the 2010 Vancouver Games. He sustained a serious knee injury in 2008 and did not recover in time to make the 2010 Olympic team. 

Ahn, who had sour relations with the Korean skating federation for years, was not sure if he could return to the Olympic Games even after he had recovered. He took a gamble -- and a new name, Viktor -- to retake the gold by becoming a Russian citizen. 

“I had to weigh the possibility of coming on board for the Olympics,” Ahn told reporters. “I am so delighted that I am back in this big skating arena.”

The veteran skater also expressed his affection for his adopted country. “The bronze medal itself carries significant meaning in my career as it is the first medal I won for the Russian team,” he said.  

“I would like to thank everyone for believing in me.” 

Asked whether he was getting on with Korean players, Ahn answered, “I never had any problems with my Korean colleagues.” 

He said he felt “sorry” about the whole situation, but added that it was “the media” that made their relationship awkward.

Ahn promised to “have fun” at the Winter Olympics along with Korean players. 

His achievement excited Russia. With local media outlets touting Ahn as a “national hero,” Russian President Vladimir Putin has congratulated Ahn on winning bronze in the event. He hailed him as a “true Olympian” who represents Russia well in the Olympic arena. 

The president of Russia’s skating federation has also high hopes for Ahn. “In the future, Ahn will become a coach of the Russian team,” he said during the interview with a local news agency R-Sports. 

But he made it clear that Ahn would still compete and take part in the upcoming world championships in Moscow in 2015. 

Meanwhile, Ahn’s change of nationality has brought a mixed reaction from Koreans. 

Some Internet users have branded him a “traitor” who sold his country out. However, many sympathize with him. Seven out of 10 Koreans responded that they would root for Ahn, not Korean players, in a survey conducted by a magazine. Another poll also showed that 61 percent of Koreans supported Ahn’s decision. 

Ahn is set to vie for gold, most likely against former Korean team mates, in the upcoming matches -- 500 meters, 1,000 meters and the relay. He will return to the ice Thursday for the 1,000-meter heats and the relay semifinals. 

By Ock Hyun-ju, Intern reporter (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)

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