Many strange things have happened at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Thousands of stray dogs were assassinated by the Russian government. Tap water looks very much like hot apple cider. (It's not hot apple cider.) Virtually everything is breaking down at hotel rooms where Olympic athletes are staying. Welcome to Russia, I guess.
But this one just might top them all. On February 15th, the people of Korea gathered around their Samsung and LG television screens and cheered for the Russian speedskating team instead of rooting for their own Korean team. Even they couldn't believe it. "I've never thought in my life that I would be cheering for the Russian team in the Olympics," commented one Korean on the internet.
It was men's 1000-meter finals. There were five skaters who made it to the last round, including one Korean and two Russians. But one of the Russian skaters looked very familiar to the Korean people. He was Ahn Hyun-soo.
A Kore-AN gone Russi-AN
Ahn Hyun-soo, now Victor An (or Viktor Ahn), was a Korean speedskater who won a countless number of medals for South Korea. Unfortunately, being one of the best short track speedskaters of all time was not good enough for his country. He also had to play some politics, which he finished last place. He struggled with the Korea Skating Union, the organization in South Korea that is responsible for sending Korean speedskaters to the Winter Olympics. An was not popular with his teammates, coaches, and others at the KSU. Why did they turn their backs against him?
The True Meaning of the Olympics for Korean Male Athletes
Korean male citizens are required by law to join the military for about two years. However, winning a medal at the Olympics exempts them from such duty. (The same applies to anyone who wins a gold medal at the Asian Games.) Victor An won many gold medals at both events from 2003 to 2007 on the Korean team. This meant he didn't have to join the military in the future. But An loves speedskating. He wanted to continue to participate in the Olympics if he was good enough to do so.
Allegedly, An was pressured by other Korean skaters into stepping aside for them to have a chance at winning Olympic medals, which he refused. To Korean male athletes, an Olympic medal isn't just a big coin with a strap on. Once they win a medal, they are free from joining the military. In addition, they also receive a national pension fund (around $500 to $1000 USD per month) from the government, for the rest of their lives. So the Olympics Games are very lucrative deals for them. Maybe too much lucrative.
From Ahn Hyun-soo to Victor An (Viktor Ahn)
After missing the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, for inexplicable reasons, An decided to move to Russia. His future career was very uncertain in South Korea at the time. So he accepted the Russian team's offer to join them in the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. Later An told the media he did not know until later that he would have to let go of his Korean citizenship to become a Russian citizen.
But that did not stop him. The Sochi Winter Olympics was likely his last chance at proving himself once again. This was an unprecedented case for Korea. Were Koreans going to hate him now? Were they going to call him a traitor for becoming a Russian citizen? An decided to find out.
Victor, the Victorious
The inevitable happened. An was in the finals facing Shin Da-woon, a Korean speedskater representing Korea. Before the race began, Korean viewers had to choose whom they were going to side with. Surprisingly, many of them sided with An. They understood why he had to leave his country. They were very angry, not at Victor An, but at the Korea Skating Union for showing the world how things actually work around in Korea, even in sports.
With the Russian and Korean people on his side, An proudly finished first with two hands firm and high in the air. (Another Russian speedskater, Vladimir Grigorev, came in second and won silver. He also became a Russian citizen. He was originally from Ukraine.) Ironically, Shin, the only remaining skater on the Korean team was disqualified. It was nothing short of poetic justice for An.
The Aftermath and the Silver Lining
Right after witnessing a very emotional finals match, many Koreans tried to access the Korea Skating Union website in anger. Due to high traffic, the KSU site went down immediately and did not come back up for more than a day. Internet articles covering An were filled with comments congradulating him on his success in Russia. Many still referred to him as "Ahn Hyun-soo," and not "Victor An," as a sign of affection. Some even said they cried when he won the race.
Corruption seems to exist in almost every Olympic sport in Korea. But let's look on the bright side. People are fed up with what is going on and they demand change. Even President Park asked during an official meeting why An could not have been on the Korean team and had to go to Russia. People in South Korea easily could have called him a traitor in the name of nationalism. But instead, they decided fairness and sportsmanship are more important in sports. I believe only with those traits instilled inside people can truly be proud of their country.