Ex-Korean superstar becomes Russia`s King of Sochi

AFP| Updated: Feb 23, 2014, 15:46 PM IST

Sochi: Russian short track speed skater Victor Ahn has become the most successful athlete at the Sochi Games with three gold medals and a bronze, eight years after he was a triple Olympic gold winner for his native South Korea.

Born in Seoul as Ahn Hyun-soo, Ahn was elevated to a national celebrity in South Korea after also winning three golds and a bronze at the Turin Games of 2006.

In a sport known for its frenetic final laps and crash-filled chaos, Ahn, 28, is an artist who neatly picks his way through a field with guile and devastating turns of speed.

But dark years followed the 2006 success as he picked up injuries and then fell out with the national federation, missing the 2010 Vancouver Games entirely.

The frustration prompted him to pack his bags and head to Russia in search of a chance to train and perform.

He says he never intended originally to become Russian. But by 2011, he had been fast-tracked by the Kremlin to become a Russian citizen and taken on the Russified name Victor Ahn.

The head of Russia`s speed skating union, Alexei Kravstov, said the process started in March 2011 when he received an email from Ahn`s agent and uncle saying he wanted to train in Russia.

"Then we started communicating and I invited him, his father and his agent to come to Moscow, to have a meeting and discuss the details," he recalled.

The choice of name was inspired by the late Soviet dissident rock icon Victor Tsoi, who was a member of Russia`s small Korean minority.

Although he claims to be learning, Ahn still hardly speaks any Russian in public and answers questions in his native Korean.

Quiet and thoughtful, he has won the hearts of Russians with his winning smile and after his victory in the 500 metres on Friday unfurled a Russian flag with the word "Spasibo" (Thank You) to repay his adoring fans.Ahn`s three gold medals means he now accounts alone for more than a quarter of the total number of golds won by Russia in what has become a hugely successful Games for the hosts.

Curiously, another two were won by a naturalised Russian snowboarder with a similar name, Vic Wild, who took Russian citizenship after marrying a Russian snowboard star.

Ahn`s new found fame in Russia has contrasted with the reception for his success in his native Korea, where only eight years ago people were celebrating the three golds.

Some see his decision to move to Russia as disloyal, others are more angry with the incompetence of Korean skating officials who allowed him to leave in the first place.

Ahn, who carefully and slowly chooses his words, is clearly hugely sensitive about the coverage of his performances in his native country.

"There has been a lot of discussion in Korea about the citizenship. Many articles have made me feel uncomfortable," he said in Sochi.

The issue is even more acute given that South Korea will host the Winter Olympics for the first time in Pyeongchang in 2018, where Ahn could again be a medal contender.

He says he will take part in the world short track championships in Moscow in 2015 and continue his career, if he still has the "strength to win a medal".

His wife, known in Russia as Nari, is a Korean who moved to Russia to be with Ahn, after reportedly meeting him through a Korea-based fan club.

Aware that a false step could cause international controversy, Ahn was careful to avoid treading into one of the big controversies of the Games, whether Korean figure skating star Kim Yu-Na was unfairly robbed of gold in favour of a Russian.

But he expressed empathy with his former compatriot. "Kim Yu-Na said she had tried to ignore the attention from the Korean press. I can understand that."