[Newsmaker] Inspiring ‘Queen Yuna’ lit Olympic cauldron

By Bak Se-hwan
  • Published : Feb 9, 2018 - 22:26
  • Updated : Feb 9, 2018 - 23:02

PYEONGCHANG, Gangwon Province -- When Kim Yuna lit the cauldron at the PyeongChang Olympic Stadium, her appearance was hardly surprising, though her name had been a closely guarded secret before the opening ceremony. 

By all accounts, Kim was a deserving choice. 

Kim Yuna lights the Olympic cauldron (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

The former Olympic champion on Friday lit the Olympic cauldron to officially kick off the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics -- an honor typically bestowed on a sporting hero of the host country.

Carried by many in the journey from its ancient home in Olympia, Greece, the flame was safely brought up a flight of stairs by two members of the joint North and South Korean women’s hockey team to the Olympic cauldron, where Kim was waiting.

Despite security concerns at a time of heightened tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, Kim’s message on Friday was clear: peace and hope. With the unifying “power of sports,” as she said in a speech to the UN General Assembly last year, the PyeongChang Games brought together delegations from abroad, including from North Korea.

Kim Yuna lights the Olympic cauldron (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)


For many, Kim is also a symbol of hope and confidence. From promoting campaigns as an honorary ambassador to host the games in 2011 to transferring the flame off a flight from Greece, the sporting hero has played a key role even after her retirement following the 2014 Sochi Games.

In 2014, then-defending champion Kim took silver in the free skate event, following Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova, whose gold medal was deemed largely home-ice favoritism by many and led to more than 2 million people signing a petition challenging the outcome.

Before the Sochi Games, Kim won at the Olympic Games, the World Championships, the Four Continents Championships and the Grand Prix Final.

“Kim will be missed on the ice,” said Kim Jae-young who came from Seoul, some 200 kilometers south of PyeongChang, to attend the opening ceremony Friday.

“I haven’t been a big fan of winter sports since Kim Yuna’s retirement, and I really don’t know anyone other than her,” Kim Jae-young said. “I just wanted to have a feel of the international festival and see Kim Yuna lighting the cauldron.” 

Kim Yuna lights the Olympic cauldron (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

The former “figure queen” is also one of the most visible Korean Olympic champions since late Sohn Kee-chung, the 1936 Olympic marathon champion who ran under the Japanese name and flag at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, as South Korea was colonized by Japan from 1910 to 1945.

Sohn carried the torch into the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony of the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul in an emotional moment for all South Koreans that signified the nation entering the world stage.

“We knew instantly who the torchbearer was the moment we saw him coming through the tunnel with the torch,” recalled Kim Jin-soo, a 57-year-old businessman who attended both the 1988 Summer and 2018 Winter Olympic opening ceremonies. “And Kim just reminds (me) of Sohn.”

The local figure-skating sensation had boosted public interest in winter sports among South Koreans, said Park Sang-hyuk, a 34-year-old office worker in Seoul who said he would watch the games at home.

“South Korea arguably has no greater living sports figure than Kim. Now that she’s gone, no other athletes draw attention as much as she did in 2014 and before,” Park said.

But Kim Yuna’s legacy on the ice is more than just a matter of national pride.

To some, Kim is a much-needed source of inspiration, especially for South Korea’s younger generation, many of whom are struggling with low salaries and unemployment.

“This young sports hero inspires many youngsters with her world-class skills and breathtaking artistry in a country where figure skating held little interest,” said Bae Kyu-han, professor emeritus of sociology at Kookmin University.

“Kim always looked confident on the ice and on the games fairly, and that’s just everything we need for hope and national pride.”

By Bak Se-hwan (