Team Korea's Olympic athletes earn golds on social media
The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics came to an end on Sunday. But for many Team Korea skaters, their social media stardom has just started. Skaters are not only cheered for on the ice, but also on YouTube and social media platforms.
Rather than how many medals an athlete has won, what seems to matter most to the public is the relatability of an athlete’s personality and lifestyle.
Perhaps the biggest Team Korea star to come out of Beijing 2022 is short track speed skater Kwak Yoon-gy. Kwak and his teammates brought Korea a silver medal at the men’s 5,000-meter relay on Feb. 16.
Affectionately dubbed “pink-haired uncle,” the 32-year-old skater who sports colorfully dyed hair has become an online sensation. His YouTube channel, created in 2019, had some 16,000 subscribers right before the Beijing Winter Olympics. His subscriber count then rocketed to 1 million in just 10 days. As of Tuesday, Kwak has over 1.25 million YouTube subscribers and his Instagram follower count more than quadrupled to around 437,000.
Kwak’s online buzz came before he even won a medal in Beijing. What captivated fans was his humorous personality and tenacity as a veteran skater. This is Kwak’s third and last Olympics following Vancouver 2010 and PyeongChang 2018, and the silver medal at the Beijing Games was his first Olympic medal in 12 years.
Late last year, Kwak told a local news outlet “I can’t promise you that I’ll win many gold medals, but you won’t ever see me give up.” Shortly before the men’s 5,000-meter relay, his final race, he wrote on YouTube, “I’ll try my best to make the last dance of my 27 skating years look super cool!”
On top of his passion, his humor and likability have earned attention. During a race on Feb. 11, Kwak lowered his head and checked between his legs to keep an eye on skaters behind him. After the scene went viral online, Kwak posted on his Instagram a video in which he stoops down while skating to reenact “what the skater behind him was seeing,” along with a fan's doodle of the incident. On Feb. 16, he danced to boy band BTS’s “Dynamite” (2020) at the podium after winning his silver medal, much to the delight of BTS fans ARMY and member RM.
Kwak uploaded videos of him socializing with athletes from other countries by playing Korean children’s games from the hit Netflix series “Squid Game” (2021) and received praise for gifting the winner of the games hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) to promote Korean culture. Kwak was the most-tweeted-about Korean athlete during the Olympics according to Twitter.
Pop culture critic Kim Heon-sik says while Team Korea athletes have always been widely loved by the public, Kwak's popularity shows a shift in tone.
“It shows how the concept of 'being a fan' has changed,” he said. “In previous Olympics, athletes were viewed with awe as ‘stars’ in the sense that they transcend ordinary people and were worshipped as extraordinary. For instance, [Olympic figure skating champion] Kim Yuna was idolized as 'Queen Yuna.' She was loved for her record-breaking performances, not for a flamboyant and humorous persona. But nowadays, athletes feel more approachable because people can easily see via social media what they're doing in their everyday lives. So people look for someone they can relate to, rather than deify."
“Korea's media coverage of the Olympics focuses mostly on popular sports — sports in which Korea is highly likely to win medals, preferably gold,” said Yu Hong-sik, a professor of Chung-Ang University’s School of Media and Communication. "So most athletes, apart from the few popular ones, had little opportunity to receive attention. But now they have their own outlets like social media and YouTube. They can get their content and message out to the public on their own."
Short track speed skater Lee June-seo also gained over 165,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel just two weeks after starting his channel right before the Olympics. Furthermore, a wholesome photograph became the talk of the town — back in 2010 when Lee was in elementary school and had just started speed skating, he had taken a photo with Kwak, who was on the national team for Vancouver 2010.
When Lee joined Team Korea and met Kwak again, he showed the photo to Kwak and the two recreated the photo. Twenty-one-year-old Lee's "from a kid fan to medal-winning colleague" narrative resonated with many people.
“Storytelling has become a crucial aspect in Korean pop culture overall,” said critic Kim. "People become more interested in a star when they have an interesting yet relatable background and life story, more so than when they're simply good at something."
Some athletes attract fans with good looks, but that doesn't mean their character arcs are any less interesting. Figure skater Cha Jun-hwan initially turned heads with his looks, likened to many K-drama stars and K-pop idols. His popularity came into full swing when he set Korea's best record ever for men’s figure skating in Beijing, finishing fifth in men's singles.
Cha, aged 20, finished 15th at the previous PyeongChang Games. His story serves as an inspiring narrative of growth in a sport that Koreans mostly associate with women, as well as succeeding Kim Yuna's legacy by showing that Korean figure skating has a bright future, according to critic Kim.
Dubbed the “figure prince” and “baby Jun,” Cha has garnered a fandom similar to that of a K-pop idol and fans are having fun expressing their love for him in a humorously over-the-top way. After a comment he made two years ago on television that he has "never had a girlfriend" resurfaced online, fans uploaded photos of women in wedding dresses rushing or skating full-speed, writing “You wait right there” and “He’s mine" — reminiscent of fan culture seen in the K-pop idol scene. Cha currently has over 327,000 followers on Instagram.
Fans seem to demand even more personal connection with Olympic stars. Short track speed skater Hwang Dae-heon, who won a gold medal in the men's 1,500 meters in Beijing, is set to join DearU bubble — a platform on which fans pay a monthly subscription fee to receive messages or photos from their favorite stars. While DearU bubble is mostly for K-pop idols' fans, popular athletes have been joining since January.
“Young athletes expressing themselves via self-produced content and showing how they are enjoying the sports itself are pleasant to watch," said Prof. Yu. "They’re creating a very enjoyable sports culture, rather than just caring about medals. That’s what stood out to me as I observed this Olympic Games.”
BY HALEY YANG [email@example.com]