South Korean skater rises to victory as a Russian.
During the Winter Olympics in Sochi, ice skater Victor Ahn (Korean name: Hyeon Soo Ahn) became the greatest hero in Russia since cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. A spontaneous movement has emerged in Russia to build a national monument in Ahn's honor. President Vladimir Putin replaced his Facebook cover photo with one of Ahn.
Already a national hero in South Korea as a winner of three gold medals at Torino in 2006, Anh decided to immigrate to Russia in 2011, giving up his South Korean citizenship. In Sochi he competed as a Russian, winning three golds and a bronze. At each medal award ceremony he flew the Russian flag and sang the Russian national anthem.
In the meantime, not a single medal was won by South Korean ice skaters in men's short track, a sport they had long dominated.
Spectators might assume that Koreans were angry with Ahn, perhaps even calling him a traitor. Far from it. Most Koreans wished Ahn success as he competed in a Russian uniform. According to a poll taken during the games, 70 percent of Koreans stated that they would root for Ahn if he competed against their own South Korean skaters. They knew that Ahn had no choice but to leave his beloved country.
Hyeon Soo Ahn was born in Seoul in 1985. After high school he enrolled at Korea National Sport University, a public institution that educates and trains promising athletes and specialized coaches in most major sports.
At age 17 in 2002, he won two golds in short track 1,000 meters and 1,500 meters at the World Junior Ice Skating Competition. In the following five years, he won more than 50 golds at various international competitions, including three golds and a bronze at the Torino Olympics in 2006.
Ahn's dreams of reaching new heights, however, were shattered as South Korea's Ice Skating Association was beset by fierce infighting between the KNSU and non-KNSU factions. When the association came under the control of non-KSNU faction, Ahn became a victim.
During the Torino Olympics, Ahn was subjected to isolation and even physical abuse by coaches and fellow skaters. Unable to practice in the men's skating ring, he had to use the women's skating ring and live in a women's section of the Olympic athletes' dormitory.
Ahn's plight turned for the worse in 2010, when the association dropped him from Team Korea for the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Ahn, a gentle-spirited man who is unmovable in matters of principle, concluded that his skating life in Korea was over. His father, deeply upset and grieving, encouraged him to leave Korea.
He considered both the United States and Russia. While he faced the red tape of U.S. immigration policies, Russia courted him with a lucrative offer, including $170,000 plus living expenses, a personal coaching staff and a Russian language instructor, along with a leading role in the Russian Ice Skating Association after retirement. Ahn became a Russian citizen in 2011 and went to Sochi as Victor Ahn.
Koreans embraced Victor Ahn warmly, directing any anger squarely at the Korean Ice Skating Association.
On Feb. 16, the day after Ahn won his gold medal in the 1,000 meter race, his father, Ki Weon Ahn, said: "At that time, Korea paid no attention to Hyeon Soo. People said that his skating life was over. Russian officials have thanked me for sending him to them. Even President Putin has called me to thank me. Korea (Ice Skating Association) should be ashamed."
Then he welcomed his son's adversity as a blessing in disguise. "Now that all is well with Hyeon Soo, I have no one to blame. I will forgive everyone. If they had not mistreated him, he might still be here in Korea. Thanks to his misfortunes, he has become a hero in Russia."
Ahn's adversity has brought into the open serious internal problems besetting Korea's Ice Skating Association. President Park Geun-hye has ordered a full investigation. There will be an unprecedented shake-up in Korea's winter sports organizations. This is good as Korea prepares for the 2018 Winter Olympics at Pyeong Chang, Korea.
Also, Ahn's story has made him the greatest goodwill ambassador to Russia that Korea has ever produced. Russian friendship is essential in the context of a hostile North Korea, and as South Korea contemplates the reunification of the peninsula.
Ultimately, Ahn's story is an inspiring testimony to the power of persistence. He rose like a phoenix from the ashes of rejection and despair. For his new Russian name he chose Victor, because he wanted to become victorious. He persisted, and he reached his goal in glory.
Song Nai Rhee of Eugene is academic vice president emeritus at Northwest Christian University and a courtesy research associate in the Center for Asia-Pacific Studies at the University of Oregon.