SEOUL (Reuters) - More Olympic athletes are set to ditch their South Korean passports and compete for rival nations unless the country’s skating union (KSU) reforms, the father of Korea’s greatest sporting defector has told Reuters.
Anger with the KSU has boiled among Koreans following Ahn Hyun-soo’s defection to Russia in 2011 - and was only exacerbated when the 28-year-old won his fourth, fifth and sixth Olympic gold medals in Sochi under the name Viktor Ahn, and as a Russian competitor.
It was a painful episode for a proud country. Ahn had won his first three golds as a South Korean at the Turin Olympics in 2006, but then came quarrels and clashes, failure to qualify for the 2010 Games and the decision to quit Korea and become a Russian citizen.
It was a huge step, but one others may soon take, Ahn’s father told Reuters, claiming that more are ready to follow his son out the door and into the arms of other nation’s unless the Seoul-based skating union sorts itself out.
“I assure you, and I am saying this with confidence, there are some parents whose children won medals at the Olympics and who have told me if the KSU keeps going like this, they are also considering switching nationalities,” Ahn Ki-won told Reuters.
Speaking at his local rink he said he would not allow his youngest son, Hyun-jun, another promising young short track speed skater with Olympic ambitions, to go through the same torment as his older brother, who he still refers to as “Hyun-soo” rather than “Viktor”.
“If the KSU refuses to reform and goes on the way it has, I’m considering switching my youngest son’s nationality to give him a better opportunity.
“I’m not doing all this for Hyun-soo, I’m doing this for Hyun-jun. I’m doing this for the next generation of South Korean skaters.”
Ahn Ki-won, who has been highly critical of the KSU for a number of years, told Reuters his son had been shunned, bullied and beaten in the Korean team, and that the poisonous atmosphere had eventually driven him to turn his back on his homeland.
The skater’s trio of golds in Sochi in February sparked a furious backlash in South Korea. Irate fans vented their fury at the KSU, and the nation’s President Park Geun-hye demanded to know how the country could let one of the greatest Olympians of all time slip through its fingers.
His father said factional divisions and power struggles within the KSU were tearing the heart out of the Korean short track team, where bias and favoritism had led to athletes turning on one another.
The switch to Russia came after Ahn had failed to make the Korean team for the 2010 Vancouver Games. A serious knee injury in 2008 left him short on fitness for the national trials and despite his pedigree the KSU left him out in the cold.
Given his history with the KSU, Ki-won believed his son would struggle to get the support, or the opportunity, he needed to return to the pinnacle of the sport in Korea, so he arranged a training stint in Russia through his coaching connections.
Ahn agreed to go to Moscow in the summer of 2011 just to train but was immediately overwhelmed by the support and positive atmosphere in Russia.
By December, the Kremlin had fast-tracked his citizenship and “Ahn Hyun-soo” became “Viktor Ahn”.
His father said they had also been in talks with the United States and Canada about a switch, but the Russian offer ticked all the boxes - both financially and in a sporting sense.
Ahn and his new country reaped instant rewards, winning gold medals galore at the Olympics and World and European Championships.
“As a parent, it feels so bad to see my son switching his nationality and skating for Russia because it is South Korea where he was born and raised and skated,” said Ki-won.
“When Hyun-soo was kissing the ice in Sochi, I asked him why did he do that. He told me: ‘Everyone said I was finished. I proved them all wrong.’
“Watching him win the gold medals in Sochi, I won’t say it was a feeling of revenge... but it was something cathartic.”
Ki-won said the peak of the KSU factional infighting came in early 2006. His son’s five team mates refused to dine or share a room with him and the situation became so unbearable he trained with the women’s team.
Just weeks before the Turin Olympics, life became too difficult for Ahn at the country’s elite national training centre in Taeneung.
“Hyun-soo ran away from Taeneung because he couldn’t stand it anymore,” said his father. “It was me who persuaded him to go back. Then he won three gold medals in Turin.”
But the bullying did not stop after the 2006 Games, instead it became even more intense. He said his son called him from the World Championships in Minneapolis the following month to say it was out of control.
Ki-won was later involved in a physical altercation with a KSU official after the World Championships and was told to stay away from the rink for a year. He “laughed” at the ban and continued to campaign for change within the KSU.
He hopes scrutiny of the KSU will soon reach a critical mass and that the authorities will institute root and branch reform of the governing body.
“All I want is this: to make the KSU transparent, democratic and to keep those with power in check,” he said.
KSU vice chairman Jeon Myung-gyu resigned on Monday, though the reason given for his departure was the poor performance of the men’s team in Sochi, not the circumstances that prompted Ahn’s switch to Russia.
After winning two gold and three silver medals at the 2010 Vancouver Games, South Korea’s men failed to pick up a short track medal of any color in Sochi.
Jeon was widely reported to be the most powerful figure in the Korean short track set-up. Sources said he was responsible for creating divisions based on which university athletes and coaches studied.
However, on Thursday the KSU denied there were ever any divisions within the team and said that Ahn’s father was using the media to promote his own agenda.
“We don’t react to every single one of Ahn’s comments because we are a public agency and he is a parent and an individual who doesn’t speak the truth,” the official told Reuters by telephone.
“Ahn Hyun-soo himself said he changed his nationality because he wanted to compete in the Olympics, not because of the factional infighting in South Korea, which doesn’t exist.
“There is, and never was, any factional infighting.”
But former national team coach Lee Joon-ho told an MBC radio program last month: “Ahn might have struggled a lot mentally before and after the 2006 Turin Olympics due to the factional infighting.”
Former women’s team coach Park Se-woo, with whom Ahn trained in 2006 at Taeneung, said: “Ahn Hyun-soo was probably having a hard time (in 2006) because the relationship between him and his team mates soured.”
Despite the current scrutiny of the KSU, there is a palpable fear among coaches and parents of Korean athletes that the storm will blow over and powerbrokers will exact revenge on anyone who speaks out against them.
One coach, who asked not to be named, said no one within the skating community would speak out about the issues within the KSU as it could come back to haunt them.
“We understood why Ahn had to leave Korea,” he said. “We are all to blame for him having to leave his homeland, myself included.”
Ahn Hyun-jun is just 13, but is already having to live with comparisons to his older sibling. He said he missed his big brother but was happy he was enjoying life in Russia.
“I haven’t got to a level yet where I’m good enough to even think about changing nationality, but it’s not out of the question,” he said, adding that he wanted to skate for the Korean team on home ice at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games.
“Even if we meet as competitors, with him representing Russia and me competing for Korea, I think that’s OK. I’ll enjoy the competition.”
His father is keeping a close eye on his development, determined to protect him from any mistreatment if and when he makes it onto the Korean team.
He watches with pride as his youngest son zips around the rink, hands behind his back, gliding effortlessly behind the leader in a train of young short track skaters.
“He skates just like his brother,” he tells Reuters with a broad smile.
Good news for Korea. Or Russia, perhaps.
Editing by Ossian Shine