Twelve years ago, South Korea’s Ahn Hyun-soo crashed into Apolo Ohno a few feet from the finish line in the men’s short track 1000m at the Olympics.
It sparked an intense rivalry between the two skaters that peaked at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, where Hyun-soo won three gold medals to Ohno’s one.
On Saturday night in Sochi, the Hyun-soo won gold again. But now his name is Viktor Ahn, and he skates for Russia.
Ahn’s story is an example of how nationality is often secondary to the financial demands of being a professional athlete in an Olympic sport.
In 2011 Ahn fell out of favour with the South Korean short track federation. Injuries kept him out of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and at age 26 he was getting old for a short track skater.
With the deepest, most talented short track team in the world, they didn’t need him.
South Korean journalist Yoo Jee-ho told the New York Times that the public thought Ahn was mistreated by the short track federation:
“He is seen as a sympathetic figure. Here is a guy who’d done so much for the country at the Olympics and the world championships, but injuries and some politics outside his control kept him from returning to his glory days.”
To keep his career alive, he looked for any country that would have him, and that’s how Ahn Hyun-soo became Viktor Ahn.
The U.S. tried to recruit him, but ultimately Ahn picked Russia because they paid well and he was virtually assured a spot in the Olympics considering the dearth of world-class Russian skaters.
He had to renounce his Korean citizenship to become a naturalized Russian citizen. He changed his name, giving this fantastic explanation for why he picked Viktor:
“First of all, the name Viktor is associated with the word ‘victory’. It’s symbolic, as I want this name to bring me luck. Secondly, I know of another Korean named Viktor, who is very popular in Russia and is well-known in Korea — Viktor Tsoy. I want to be as famous in Russia as he was. And third, I was told that Viktor is a name, which is easy to remember for Russian-speakers.”
Now that he has returned to his 2006 form, the Koreans are wondering how they let him go.
President Park Geun-hye has ordered an investigation into why Ahn was kicked to the curb by the skating federation in 2011.
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