[Viewppoint]Changing nationalities in sports

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[Viewppoint]Changing nationalities in sports

As I watched a TV beer commercial featuring the 33-year-old K-1 fighter Choo Sung-hoon, many thoughts overlapped. In the commercial, he shouts “Win a gold medal. Korean team fighting!” to Korean Olympic players in accented Korean.

Choo, an ethnic Korean judoka, became a naturalized Japanese citizen in 2001, changing his name to Yoshihiro Akiyama. Born as an ethnic Korean in Japan, he joined the Busan City team in 1998 because he wanted to compete in judo in the Olympics as a member of the Korean national team.

That put the Korean judo community in a tough spot. After repeated controversial losses on points here, Choo moved back to Japan and realized his dream by becoming a member of Japan’s national team.

In 2002, he won a gold medal in the Busan Asian Games by defeating Korea’s Ahn Dong-jin. One Korean media outlet wrote this headline: “Choo throws his homeland over his shoulder.”

He had once come to Korea with his own feet, but Korea kicked him out. How dare the newspaper describe him like that?

In Korea, Choo is extremely popular. Youngsters and housewives are mesmerized by his charm. His nationality doesn’t matter. His talent and charm do.

Many Internet users compared the attractiveness of Lee Yong-dae, who won a gold medal for mixed doubles badminton, with Lee Hyo-jung in the Beijing Olympics, to Helen of Troy. Choo has already earned such praise.

Dang Ye-seo, originally from China, won a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics in table tennis for Korea after she became a naturalized Korean. She struggled hard for seven years before becoming a member of the Korean national team.

After the 27-year-old almost lost her chance to represent Korea, she won 10 victories at the competition to select a player for the Table Tennis World Championships in January. Such a talent was enough to immediately remove all jealousy. Once again, all that mattered in the end was talent. (And on top of that, Dang is extremely good looking.)

There was a joke, asking “What incident defines globalization?” The answer is the death of Princess Diana.

The British princess was involved in her fatal accident while the car she was riding in with her Egyptian boyfriend was inside a tunnel in France. A Belgian driver was maneuvering a Mercedes from Germany built with a Dutch engine. The driver, who was under the influence of a Brazilian drug prescribed by an American doctor, was driving drunk after consuming Scottish whiskey. And the car was being chased by Italian paparazzi riding Japanese motorcycles.

As I see Choo and Dang, I felt like nationality - not just a car or a whiskey- has become a subject of globalization. We are now living in the era of choosing nationality to realize an individual’s dream.

Of course, not everyone can do that. No matter one’s talent, charm or work ethic, the choice to switch countries is preconditioned on the host country’s needs. And there is a much higher possibility that a country, which is farsighted and engaging, will allow such a switch.

Tiger Woods has a half-black, one-quarter American Indian and one-quarter Chinese father and a half-Thai and one-quarter Chinese and one-quarter white mother. And think about the enormous national benefits he has brought to the United States.

It is possible that such a gifted person be born in a reclusive country that cares a great deal about skin color only to have his or her talent snuffed out after being pushed around and bullied.

The Olympic Games are a competition of nations. Globalization became conspicuous in Beijing. Coaches with talent already move to nations around the world without regard to their nationality. Of the countries that participated in this 2008 event, 21 nations had table tennis coaches and players from China. All four members on the U.S. national table tennis team are from China.

Of the 49 countries that competed in archery, Korean coaches trained 13 national teams.

What we must pay attention to is the direction in which these changes are heading. Although pursuing one’s dreams and happiness, it is rare to see someone change his nationality from an advanced country to a developing one.

Benjamin Boukpeti is perhaps an exception. The 27-year-old won a bronze medal in the kayak slalom for Togo after it became clear that his real home country, France, would not allow him on its national team.

Mostly, people change their nationalities from underdeveloped countries to developed countries, and from reclusive countries to engaging ones. Come to think of it, that’s just natural.

How attractive is the Korean nationality? Is it charming enough for a talented foreigner to select without reservation?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. As far as I can see, we have a long way to go.


*The writer is the senior culture and sports editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Noh Jae-hyun

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