Rejecting the U.S. to Skate for Russia
In 2011, the South Korean short-track speedskating star Ahn Hyun-soo became a Russian citizen, changed his name to Viktor Ahn and pledged to compete for his adopted homeland at the Sochi Games. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was said to be especially pleased.
But what if Ahn Hyun-soo had not become Viktor Ahn? What if he had become Joe (or Mike, or Bill) Ahn instead?
That seemingly unlikely situation is not so far-fetched. When Ahn, 28, went searching for a new Olympic allegiance after a falling-out with the South Korean skating federation, he and his father examined naturalization for top athletes in several countries — with the United States and Russia being the final two possibilities, said Jang Kwon-ok, a former Russian speedskating coach who helped recruit Ahn.
Jang, who has also coached the national teams of South Korea, Australia and the United States, said last week that Ahn, who will compete in the men’s 1,500-meter race on Monday, considered trying to switch to the American skating program but ultimately chose to go with Russia because it was an easier and more lucrative process.
“He was looking at the U.S.A., too, very much,” said Jang, who is coaching Kazakhstan’s short-track team here. “But it was difficult to move to the U.S.A., and also the budget was a problem. He needed some salary, and they could not pay. There is no money there for short-track. The best condition was Russia because they are open and make it good for him.”
Jang, who said he still spoke to Ahn often, would not specify how much financial assistance Ahn received from the Russian federation. But he did say that the process for receiving Russian citizenship was “very, very easy,” compared with the layers of paperwork and the residency requirements that would be expected of someone trying to gain American citizenship. Jang also said that the talent pool in both countries was a factor for Ahn.
The United States already had several strong skaters, including J. R. Celski, who is a medal contender here. Russia, on the other hand, has won just a single short-track medal (as the Unified Team in 1992). As the host country at this Olympics, the Russians were surely interested in having legitimate competitors in as many sports as possible.
“At that time, Russia’s short-track program was very low,” Jang said. “So they were very welcoming to him. The U.S.A.? They did not need him as much.”
Ahn’s nationality change has generated a mix of opinions in the skating world, though the practice is hardly unprecedented. Ahn is not the only short-track skater competing in Sochi to switch countries: Anthony Lobello skated on the 2006 United States Olympic team but will skate here for Italy after what he described in a blog post as a “wild ride” with the United States skating federation.
Ahn’s move has been more of a lightning rod. Ahn has won five world championship titles, and he claimed three gold medals at the 2006 Olympics, vaulting to the top of the sport. But he sustained a serious knee injury in 2008, and the South Korean skating federation, with which he had a tumultuous relationship for years, did not seem particularly interested in helping with his comeback once he did not recover in time to make the 2010 Olympic team.
After joining the Russians, Ahn steadily worked his way back to the top and won three titles for Russia at the European championships last month. Much of the public attention after that event was focused on the Dutch skater Sjinkie Knegt, who responded to an Ahn victory with an obscene gesture — but most skaters simply focused on the good form Ahn was showing. Jang was impressed by the speed Ahn showed at the start of races, something that had not been one of his strengths.
Viktor Knoch, a Hungarian skater, said that Ahn was “easy to like.”
“He got basically sent away from Korea,” Knoch said. “They said they didn’t need him anymore. But he didn’t just say: ‘O.K., I’ve won my five world championships and my three Olympic titles. I’m going to stop.’ He decided to come back. And I think that’s a pretty big deal.”
In Sochi, Ahn will compete in three individual events and skate for the Russian team in the 5,000-meter relay. If he wins, it will certainly be a big moment for Russians, but South Korean fans also figure to be excited.
Yoo Jee-ho, a journalist with Yonhap News Agency, said a poll conducted last year in South Korea found that 61 percent of more than 1,200 respondents said that they understood Ahn’s decision to renounce his South Korean citizenship and skate for Russia.
“He is seen as a sympathetic figure,” Yoo said. “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.”
Now it appears that Ahn has made it back, even if he had to change his name to do so. So why did he choose Viktor? Ahn had not given interviews leading to the Games, but in a statement on the Russian federation website, he said that part of his inspiration was to pay tribute to Viktor Tsoi, a Soviet-Korean musician who died in a car crash at 28.
Ahn also said that he was attracted to a name so closely connected to winning. The name Viktor, he believes, will bring him luck.