Olympic Speedskating: Korean Transplant Victor An Finds Golden Home in Russia

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Olympic Speedskating: Korean Transplant Victor An Finds Golden Home in Russia
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

The Russian fans were going crazy—standing, cheering, banging drums.

Victor An was in the process of winning a short-track medal for the Olympics' host country, but he was also hearing plenty of boos—from Korean fans.

Because Victor An has another name, a Korean name. He is also known as Ahn Hyun-Soo.

Whatever his name, he is a star short-track speedskating athlete and now a Russian hero after winning gold Saturday in the 1,000 meters. 

Until 2011, An competed successfully but contentiously for his native South Korea. After much trouble with the South Korean federation, he became a Russian citizen and began preparing for the Sochi Games. From what we've seen so far, the change has been a success.

An, 28, has won a bronze in the 1,500 and gold in the 1,000, with the 500 coming up on Feb. 21.

Sure, it seems against the Olympic spirit, this country-shopping, but it's happened before. It used to feel as if the Olympics was about rooting for our own country's athletes, even if they weren't the best, because they were raised and trained at home.

Now, more and more, we want to see the best, and who they compete for isn't as important.

An won Russia's first-ever short-track event with his gold in a nation more noted for long-track speedskating, as Russia chose to strengthen its short-track program by going outside the country. And An had good reasons for leaving. He was left off South Korea's short-track team in 2010 even after he worked hard to rehabilitate sore knees.

It seemed like a real slap in the face to the short-track star, who still wanted to skate at the highest level and win medals for South Korea.

But if South Korea didn't want him, others did. Russia made him the best offer. He has an apartment in Moscow where he and his fiancee live and a contract that will allow him to continue coaching in Russia after the Sochi Games if he wants to. Even the U.S. tried to recruit An to its team.

Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

This is An's third Winter Olympics, and his resume is impressive: He's won six medals, including three golds for South Korea in 2006 in Turin before deciding to change nationalities. 

When An medaled for Russia in the 1,500 meters, he thrust a fist in the air but had to be prompted to grab a Russian flag to carry as he skated a lap around the ice with fans chanting "Vic-tor, Vic-tor," according to Mark Zeigler of the San Diego Tribune.

It was hard to tell if the fans understood the sport, since Russians tend to win more often in long-track speedskating. But they got the part about the medal.

According to Zeigler, it's unclear if An had even set foot, or skate, in Russia before obtaining his citizenship.

Russian short-track coach Sebastien Cros, who happens to be French, told the San Diego paper, "Korea didn't want anything to do with him. So he came to Russia."

After coming home from the 2006 Turin games, An and his father engaged in a screaming match with the South Korean federation in the airport, Zeigler wrote, an embarrassing moment witnessed by many. That split the South Korean team into an An camp and an anti-An camp.

The dispute reportedly had to do with training methods. An injured his knee in 2008 and was left off South Korea's 2010 team, a controversial decision, and the final push that sent An and his father looking for another home.

The Ans even approached the United States, but Russia offered more money, so An signed a contract through the 2014 Olympics to be a Russian skater, with an option to remain as a coach.

He said he changed his name to Victor because he wanted to honor a Russian rock star he admired, Viktor Tsoi, whose father also had a Korean background.

"I thought that I could have a better chance to prepare myself for competitions, that my training environment would be more favorable in Russia," An said last Monday in Sochi, per Zeigler. "So I just changed my citizenship."

Other short-track skaters don't seem to mind, and even a Korean newspaper poll gave An a 61 percent approval for leaving.

Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images

“It is good because a champion is beautiful to see in this sport,” Italy’s Yuri Confortola told Zeigler. “I prefer him to come back with Korea because I think he’s a Korean. I don’t like changing countries. But I prefer to see Victor An skate. With Russia is better than nothing.”

Another skater, Canada's Michael Gilday, said, "You need the best skaters on the ice. That makes the best show for the fans and helps grow the sport, so as a competitor you can't have sour grapes over the fact some guy who's really good and has a bunch of Olympic gold medals is all of a sudden getting another shot."

Cros noted that An has been in Russia for four years, has learned to speak Russian and has gotten Russian doctors who made his achy knees better.

"Always, there will be some comments like this," Cros told Zeigler. "But, you know, it's not my problem."

American short-track star Apolo Anton Ohno, who always had a big rivalry with Korean skaters in winning his eight Olympic medals, called An's defection "big news in speedskating," per Eurosport. "Any time you switch citizenship to race for another country, it's a big deal.

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"I personally could never do it. But the one thing we can say for him is that he loves the sport and if that meant he had to switch the country he is representing, it really shows how dedicated he is."

There's always a debate. Should the Olympics be only about showcasing the best athletes or giving every country a chance to win something? But viewers of the Games, as many of those athletes said, want to see the best, and to them, it doesn't matter what country the best are competing for. 

An belonged on the ice this year, and Russia gave him that chance, welcoming him with the best of training and medical care and a comfortable life that has allowed him to show his best so far. An told reporters through an interpreter that he will always be appreciative of what the Russians have done for him.

"I am happy to be a citizen of two countries and I hold no ill-will to Korea," An said to reporters in a post-race interview that was replayed to Bleacher Report on tape. 

"I know now that I made the right decision and I'm now a man who has experienced success in two cultures. For me, that is an honor. I hope my countrymen in Russia are happy and I don't wish Korea anything but success. I feel I am lucky."

 

Diane Pucin is the Olympics lead writer for Bleacher Report. She covered seven Games for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Los Angeles Times. You can follow her on Twitter @mepucin.

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