It’s only a game

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It’s only a game


Lee Chul-ho

Viktor Ahn, who brought his adopted country Russia its first Olympic gold medal in short track speed skating after winning the men’s 1,000-meter match at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, said what athletes truly wish for is “an environment to do the sport” they love. The Seoul-born skater, whose Korean name is Ahn Hyun-soo, won three gold medals and a bronze at his first two Olympics in 2002 and 2006. He switched his nationality to Russian in 2011 after a career-threatening knee injury that cost him a place in the Vancouver Olympics with allegedly little support from the Korea Skating Union. Ahn said he joined the Russian team to compete in the Olympics. “I wanted to keep on skating,” he said after his victory Saturday. “I didn’t want to stop because of an injury. I proved my decision was not wrong.”

Ahn has dominated the short track since 2003 with his signature precision, grace and powerful cornering skills. His speed fell short of his performances in the previous Olympics. His father claimed the Korea Skating Union sneered that Ahn’s best days were over. One Korean coach referred to Ahn as “a good foreign skater,” indicating the sense of betrayal and the grudge Korea’s skating society holds against the skater for deserting his country in exchange for a ticket to the Olympics.

But the Korean national team was hardly in a position to denounce Ahn’s performance. Once-unrivaled powerhouse in short track speed skating, Korea fared poorly in Sochi with the women’s team barely saving face with a silver and bronze. Ahn, in fact, was the only reminder of the past reputation of the Korean men’s team, which did not even advance to the 5,000-meters final for the first time in 12 years, let alone add any medals in Sochi. Ahn’s sweet revenge against the skating union that discarded him as a passe was a windfall for Russia, as he brought the country its first gold in the short track as well as a bonus silver for his teammate who trailed him in the last lap in the 1,000 meters.

The backlash from Ahn’s comeback and fall of the Korean men’s skating team turned manic among local fans with blame heaped on the skating union and the management of the sport. Even President Park Geun-hye called for some soul-searching in the sports community due to Ahn’s case so that factionalism, lineage and other structural irregularities, corruption and political activities no longer ruin athletes and their careers. Outside intervention may be inevitable. The Sports Ministry is expected to embark on an investigation into the Korea Skating Union together with prosecutors and the Board of Audit and Inspection.

But all of these reactions to a sports event cannot be considered normal. Today’s generation blames the fall of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and Korea’s division on the elite’s witch-hunting and wiping out of the opposition. Suddenly a dichotomy is established. Ahn is the good victim and the skating union is bad, almost to the point of being evil. Sympathy and praise goes to Ahn, who suffered and overcame his worst times.

Medals matter in the Olympics. Participating in the Games is meaningful for athletes, but people only care about the results. We criticize the air of commercialism and nationalism in the Olympics. But our media spotlight and public interest rests primarily on the competitions that Koreans excel in and have chances of winning to bring home medals. We lament that today’s world only remembers people who win, but it is us who so easily neglect and forget people who come in second or third. Most athletes beam on the podiums regardless of which medals they wear. But Korean athletes - with silver around their necks - wipe away tears and bow their heads as if they have regrets or have done something wrong.

The Duke of Wellington, the general who commanded the British triumph in the Battle of Waterloo against Napoleon’s French Army, proclaimed that war was “won on the playing fields of Eton.” He was crediting the team sports he learned as a schoolboy for his adaptive defense style, planning skills, sense of fair play, comradeship and leadership on the battlefield.

Great Britain was an Olympic powerhouse before World War I. But the country’s name doesn’t make the top ranks these days. It made a temporary comeback during the last two Summer Olympics, including the 2012 Games that were held in London. The International Olympic Committee does not issue rankings by countries. The United States ranks according to the total number of medals won and does not single out gold medals. Ahn considered the United States as a destination for naturalization. But he chose Russia, which offered financial support and easy citizenship. The United States does not break the rules and make exceptions simply to win medals in an Olympic sport.

Sports like handball and ski jumping now receive attention because popular films were made about them. According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, about four out of 10 Koreans regularly exercise and more than half of the population does not work out once a week. But South Korea has been ranked between fourth to 14th in Summer and Winter Olympics since 1988, and is the No. 2 Asian powerhouse in sports after China. It is a stunning record for a small country like ours. After witnessing the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Haruki Murakami praised the winners, but said, “Humans sometimes win and lose. But whatever the results, we all have to go on living.” As fellow countrymen, we should offer a sincere congratulations to Ahn. But what happens on the sports field should stop there.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 17, Page 30

*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Chul-ho
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