[Viewpoint] This medal meant more than a win

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[Viewpoint] This medal meant more than a win

Eight years later, Korea got its revenge on Apolo Anton Ohno. Or did it? All red-blooded Koreans remember Ohno and the “stolen” gold medal, the ultimate proof that the world picks on poor little Korea.

It happened during the 2002 Winter Olympics. During the 1,500-meter final race, a South Korean skater, Kim Dong-sung, was first across the finish line, but was disqualified for blocking Ohno in a rule violation called cross tracking.

With three laps remaining, as Ohno attempted to pass, Kim drifted to the inside, apparently to cut him off. Ohno then raised his arms to signal that he was blocked. The officials disqualified Kim and awarded the gold medal to Ohno.

Korea erupted in fury. Every single one of its 48 million citizens knew that it was not a debatable, possibly incorrect, ruling. No, it was a deliberate insult to all Koreans worldwide. Outraged e-mails crashed the Olympic Committee’s server. Thousands of accusatory letters, some with death threats, were sent to Ohno and the committee.

As a mixed-race American, with a Caucasian mother and a Japanese father, Ohno had just about the worst pedigree - for Koreans - any human could have in the politically charged year of 2002.

It was a prefiguration of the nationalist wave that elected Roh Moo-hyun in December of the same year.

Justice finally was done this month, when Lee Jung-su defeated Ohno in the 1,500-meter final. But wait - three Koreans passed Ohno, and yet he ended up on the medal stand wearing silver. In the final lap, two Koreans crashed out of the race.

Oh, no ? Ohno! Once again, Ohno took a medal - the “stolen” silver medal? - that should have gone to a Korean.

But this time Korea did not erupt. A lot of things are different now.

Ohno himself is different. At 27 years old, competing in his third Olympics, he is now the most-decorated American Winter Olympian. Three years ago he was inducted into the Asian Hall of Fame, an award that honors achievements of Asian-Americans.

About that name, by the way. “Apolo” - after Apollo, the Greek and Roman god of sunlight, prophecy, music and poetry? Not quite. As his father explained it, he had fused two Greek words, which he defined as “ap,” meaning to “steer away from,” and “lo,” meaning “look out, here he comes.”

Perhaps the name made it inevitable that Ohno should become a pop hero in America. Three years ago, he won a dance competition on the television show “Dancing with the Stars.” He and his partner, Julianne Hough, received a perfect score for their samba.

All in all, it is not a bad second act for a kid who at age 19 was the most hated person in the world, or at least in the Korean part of the world.

Ohno was shaken by the Koreans’ hostile reaction to his Olympic gold in 2002.

“A lot of my best friends were Korean growing up,” he said. “I just didn’t understand. Later on I realized that was built up by certain people and that was directed at me, negative energy from other things, not even resulting around the sport, but around politics, using me to stand on the pedestal as the anti-American sentiment.”

He declined to participate in a 2003 World Cup short-track event in Korea for security reasons. In a World Cup event two years later, 100 riot police stood guard at Incheon International Airport to protect Ohno from harm.

Korea has changed since then. Even if Ohno had won in Vancouver, beating a Korean, I don’t think we would have seen a repeat of nationalist fury in Korea.

Korea has matured. It understands and accepts itself as a modern society with a role to play in the world.

When I was editor of this newspaper, Korea already had arrived on the world stage. The awarding to Korea of the 2002 soccer World Cup had proved that. So did Korea’s acceptance into the OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, often called the “rich nations’ club.”

Korea was in, but it still didn’t believe in itself. Again and again, my writers would opine on what it would take to make Korea a “developed country.” And again and again, I, the outsider, would explain to them that Korea was already a developed country, as acknowledged by the world.

Further development, yes; but “poor little Korea,” no. In the eyes of the world Korea was poor no longer. On the contrary, it was time for boastful Korea to back up its brags by accepting the responsibilities of a mature society.

Well, that is what makes this year, this Olympics, different from 2002. Korea was the first developed country to overcome the global recession and return to growth. This year the OECD expects Korea’s GDP to expand by 4.4 percent, the highest growth rate of any of its members.

Korea is laying claim to lead the club of rich nations. In November, Seoul will be the site of the meeting of the Group of 20 leading and emerging economic powers. President Lee Myung-bak has announced an initiative to cut “greenhouse” emissions by 30 percent by 2020. If it happens, it would be world-leading.

We must make Korea’s vision the world’s vision, says President Lee.

Poor little Korea, the punching bag of the great powers? Let’s put that stereotype away. It no longer fits the successful Korea of today.

So all hail Lee Jung-su, Olympic champion. Americans who watched the race agree that the best man won. And if the best man had turned out instead to be Apolo Anton Ohno we trust that Koreans would have cheered him, too.

*The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily.

by Harold Piper


From left, Apolo Anton Ohno, who finished second; Koreans Lee Ho-suk and Sung Si-bak, who got tangled and wiped out; and the Korean gold medalist Lee Jung-su recover after the men’s 1,500-meter short-track speed skating final. [Yonhap]

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