The ‘indecent’ state of citizenshipWhen a Russian national won the gold at the 1,000-meter race in a World Cup short track speed skating race in Calgary, Canada, in October of last year, the JoongAng Ilbo headline read “Forget Ahn Hyun-soo, Viktor Ahn Sprints to Gold.”
Ahn had been a star on the Korean short track team, but he became a Russian citizen in 2011. In short track, his name is legendary. He is a three-time Olympic champion and a five-time International Skating Union winner. Once a star on the Korean team - a powerhouse in short track - he switched to Russia after an injury cost him his spot on the Korean team.
He picked up three more medals - a gold, a silver and a bronze - in last week’s World Cup competition in Seoul. The Korean team won a silver and two bronze - a poor result at home for a country that has long been the best short track nation in the world.
But we heard no sounds of booing toward the previously-Korean short track star. His fans remember why he left the country - not just because of a knee injury, but also due to hurt from factional conflicts within the skating union, beatings, bullying, power struggles and neglect after his team was disbanded.
He left for Russia not only because they offered him a spot on the Olympics team and other rewards. Ahn’s home country scared him away. The coaches and sports leaders were too busy fighting among themselves; the media interested in the sport only for international events; and the audiences cared only about gold medals.
It is not a new thing for international stars to change nationality in order to compete on the global stage. Countries vie to attract these athletes in order to boost their performance and national name. A Chinese national joined a South Korean team, and several Korean archers have represented Japan and Australia.
It is a common practice in sports, and yet such moves don’t sit well with the Korean public. Athletes are called unpatriotic and are accused of selling out. But we cannot demand athletes who stake their entire life on a certain sport to be patriotic as well.
In an interview before he left the country, Ahn said he just wanted to skate. “It doesn’t matter what national flag I bear on my uniform. What is more important is that I get a chance to compete in the Olympics.” Many athletes would agree.
Talk of losing an advantage in technique is also overblown. Sports are not intellectual properties or technologies with patents rights. If that were the case, why do we try to promote Korea’s Taekwondo all over the world?
There is a saying: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” But a famous restaurant must keep its award-winning chef in order to maintain good business. The need to discover, foster and invest in talented people is not limited to sports. It applies to every field - economics, science and culture. Talent is hard to come by and it needs to be fought over because talented individuals are connected to national competitiveness.
Are we ready to join the race? Apparently not. Local laws obviously say so. According to Article 5 of the Nationality Act, the second requirement for a foreigner to become a Korean citizen is “decent behavior.” What exactly does that mean?
Are we saying we Koreans are all “decent” and that foreigners must fit into the Korean definition of “decency”? What has decency, besides not being a criminal, got to do with becoming a Korean citizen? The term is too ambiguous and broad and could be easily twisted for certain purposes. It would be less ridiculous if the law required “decency” in appearance, given our reputation for cosmetic surgery. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton would not be able to attain Korean citizenship because of the decency clause.
Korean law also leaves out the most important requirement. All countries demand foreigners promise to obey the constitutional order and law to become a citizen. We do not.
Viktor Ahn’s feat in Seoul over the weekend sends a strong message to the narrow-mindedness and prejudice of our society. We are sorry for the loss and yet applaud his courage for escaping from his cage. We all must break free from our self-imposed shell.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Nam Yoon-ho