SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - As if they were not suffering enough with their Sochi short-track troubles, South Korea had to endure their former skater Ahn Hyun-soo striking gold with a new name under a new flag on Saturday as newly-Russian Viktor Ahn triumphed in the 1,000 meters.
Two years after switching allegiances, the 28-year-old has transformed Russia from a short-track also-run nation into once celebrating their first three Olympic medals after training mate Vladimir Grigorev took silver on Saturday to add to Ahn's bronze in the 1500m.
The victory was especially sweet for Ahn, who saw it as a vindication of his defection after being passed over by South Korea for a spot at the 2010 Vancouver Games following a knee injury in 2008 that nearly ended his career.
"I wanted to train in the best possible environment and I proved my decision was not wrong," said Ahn, who is regarded as one of the greatest short track speed skaters of all time.
Ahn collapsed to his knees, kissing the ice and shedding tears of joy, after reclaiming the title he won for South Korea in Turin eight years ago to become the first man to win four Olympic gold medals in short track.
"I spent the last eight years working toward this gold medal and so many things happened along the way so that's why I cried," Ahn, his hair dyed orange red, told reporters.
"At first my mind was going blank. It was unbelievable."
Ahn hugged his former countrymen before celebrating with Grigorev. "We compete against each other for the medal but not against each other personally," he said.
Although Russia has long been a winter sports powerhouse, the only medal it has won in short track was a bronze at Albertville in 1992, when competing as the Unified Team.
Korea, meanwhile, has long been the dominant nation, winning 19 golds, 12 more than any other nation.
But Ahn's flag swap is already helping improve the competitiveness of the entire team.
"He is one person but he brings so much to the team in terms of confidence. He pulls everyone towards the top," Russian team coach Sebastien Cros told Reuters. "People want to follow him. He is an incontestable technical leader."
Ahn is also the favorite going into the 500m and seeks to lead the underdog Russian relay team to the podium in the 5,000m.
"He is probably one of the best to ever have put short track skates on," America's most decorated Winter Olympian and Ahn's erstwhile rival, Apolo Anton Ohno, told Reuters.
"He is not the same athlete now. He is more of a sprinter, he is more explosive, he is stronger, he is more muscular. He skates differently ... which is pretty cool to see the transformation of an athlete like that."
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Editing by Mitch Phillips