The short-track speed skater who finished first in the men’s 1,000 meters and won the first gold for Russia in Sochi on Saturday was Viktor Ahn, formerly a South Korean citizen. South Koreans best remember him as the man who won three gold medals in the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics under his former name Ahn Hyun-soo.
A U.S. daily hypothetically compared the case to Michael Jordan deciding to play for Cuba in the Olympics. The comment was a bit far-fetched. Russia is not to Korea what Cuba is to the United States. Still, there was a grain of truth in this.
Many South Koreans regret that Ahn competed for Russia. Yet, they do not denounce him for changing his nationality. Instead, they understand he had to make such a decision after a falling-out with officials.
Public criticism in South Korea is directed at the Korea Skating Union. Many believe with good reason that Ahn was made a scapegoat of factionalism within the skating organization along the divide in loyalty between Korea National Sports University and others.
Worse still, such factionalism is blamed for South Korea’s lackluster performance in Sochi. This is a serious problem for South Korea, with its provincial town of PyeongChang set to host the 2018 Olympics.
Against this backdrop, President Park Geun-hye ordered an inspection into the case involving Ahn when she received the 2014 policy briefing from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism last week. She was quoted as saying, “Ahn is a top-tier athlete. What is the reason that he could not fulfill his dream in our country and competed for the other country?”
As she demanded, the Korean Olympic Committee will have to look into the claim that it is not just the Korea Skating Union but the country’s entire sports community that is riddled with factionalism, biased officiating and other lapses in sportsmanship. Ahn is not the only one who has had to give up his nationality as a Korean.
An accomplished Korean judoka residing in Japan acquired Japanese citizenship when his desire to make the Korean Olympic team was blocked by dubious judging. He defeated his Korean rival to win gold in the 2002 Busan Asian Games, bolstering suspicions about the earlier decision.
The controversy over factionalism against Ahn came to the fore when he came back from Turin. In April 2006, his father claimed Ahn’s teammates had attempted to keep him from winning a gold medal on the orders of the team coach. He made similar accusations, prompting the Korean Olympic Committee to launch an investigation into the case.
The committee concluded that a coach and athletes had attempted to fix the April 2009 competitions for the national team selection. Ahn, a Korea National Sports University graduate who failed to qualify for the 2010 Vancouver Games, went to Russia and changed his name to Viktor.
The Korea Skating Union will have to keep in mind what Ahn said after winning his gold medal in Sochi. He was quoted as saying, “I made a choice to come to Russia. I wanted strong competition and the coaches are better here.” The organization will do well to fix all its problems before the 2018 Olympics are held in PyeongChang. It goes without saying that other sports organizations will also have to make similar efforts.