NEW YORK (Reuters) - Apolo Anton Ohno endeared himself to millions of Americans as the face of short-track speedskating, winning eight Olympic medals in a dazzling career.
With his trademark bandana and goatee, Ohno was an instant hit in a sport where competitors skim around a congested ice track on razor-sharp blades, knowing one simple mistake can be the difference between success and failure.
But not everyone was taken by Ohno’s cool guy persona and ruthless will to win and the American unwittingly became a despised figure in South Korea after the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.
Ohno finished second in the 1,500 meters final behind South Korea’s Kim Dong-sun but was promoted to gold when Kim was disqualified for blocking.
Ohno bore the brunt of the blame for raising his arms during the race, suggesting he had been the victim of foul play. The officials agreed and awarded him the gold medal, despite howls of protest from South Korea.
Ohno quickly became public enemy number one in South Korea. His name became a synonym for a dirty trick and his image was printed on rolls of toilet paper.
He received death threats and, in 2003, the American team boycotted a race in South Korea because of concerns about their security.
For Ohno, who confirmed this week that he was quitting the sport to start a career in broadcasting, the animosity was never mutual.
“I never had any resentment towards South Koreans. They were always incredible competitors,” he told Reuters in an interview. “They were gracious to me on the field of play and a lot of them are very good friends.
“I was coached by Koreans, I grew up in the culture, I went and trained with the national team there and I received a lot of love and support when I was there.”
Ohno, who is currently campaigning with Teva Respiratory to raise awareness about exercise-induced bronchospasm, or EIB, a condition he secretly suffered from during his career, said he was deeply upset by the way he was perceived in South Korea.
But the 30-year-old said he was confident there were no lingering problems and he was already looking forward to returning to South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
“At times, I was really sad, because I love the culture, I love the people, I love the food, I love the country and it was difficult for me to know that I didn’t feel safe going there,” he said. “But I’ve been back there many times ... and it was pretty magical.
“There’s never really been any animosity from my side. Only respect for their athletes and hopefully, for the Games in 2018, they will put on a spectacular show.”
Before Pyeongchang, there is Sochi, the host of next year’s Winter Olympics, where security is another hot topic.
The issue has intensified in the wake of last week’s deadly Boston Marathon bombings, but Ohno said he was confident everyone would be protected in Russia.
“I don’t know if concerned is the right word but I think we all need to be cautious,” he said.
“In the back of everyone’s minds, we know anything can happen but they’ve (security) been very good, at every Games I’ve been to, of keeping everybody safe.”
Editing by Frank Pingue