This is a story of defection and betrayal. It has the feel of something that came straight out of the Cold War.
But instead of Lt. No Kum-Sok’s flight to freedom, this is about Viktor Ahn’s skate for Russia, with love (and perhaps vengeance).
On September 21, 1953, shortly after the ceasefire in the Korean War, No flew his MiG-15 into a U.S. base in South Korea. The North Korean fighter pilot brought with him a state-of-the art new model of the Soviet-made fighter plane, coveted by the Americans. But his real aim was to leave an oppressive regime and reunite with his mother.
No was given a $100,000 reward for bringing the MiG (though he was unaware the existence of the reward when he defected) as the plane was vigorously tested by American engineers and pilots – among them the legendary Chuck Yeager. Later, No anglicized his name to Kenneth Rowe and settled into a civilian life after becoming an American citizen.
More than half a century later, history is repeating itself but in a more perverse way. This time, it’s a South Korean who’s defecting to Russia. And the reward he’s seeking is Olympic gold.
Ahn Hyun-Soo won three gold medals in the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics on the short track, a discipline dominated by South Korea. Ahn became a national hero but his stardom would prove to be short-lived. Injuries sidelined him and cost him a spot on the South Korean team for the 2010 Games in Vancouver.
Ahn felt his country – or at least the South Korean short-track speed skating federation – had turned its back on him during his time of misfortune. He was no longer wanted even after he fully recovered from his injuries. South Korea simply had too many world-class skaters to make room for an old Olympic hero.
Not willing to end his career just yet, Ahn shopped his services around. Eventually, with the help of his father, he settled on Russia, which has never won a single short-track medal but was seeking to become a contender in the sport as it geared up to host the Sochi Games.
Ahn Hyun-Soo became Viktor Ahn and a Russian citizen two years ago, and started to represent his new country in international competition. Besides winning medals himself, he’s also lifted Russia’s short-track program to the extent that it will challenge South Korea and China in Sochi for medals.
“When I first came to Russia, it was harder compared to what I had imagined,” Ahn told the Voice of Russia last September. “Not everything had worked out so quickly. When I started to go to competitions, started training, I felt that I made progress and results were improving. And now I think it will be a steady progress up to the Olympics, and I’ll try to prepare well for them.”
Ahn, 28, made a triumphant return to his birthplace and hometown Seoul last October, winning three medals, including a gold, in the World Cup competition. He then led his new country to dominate January’s European Championships in Dresden, Germany, winning three golds while Russia netted 10 medals.
With China’s Wang Meng sidelined because of an ankle injury, Ahn will have a chance to become the most decorated Olympian in short-track history. Wang has six Olympic medals, including four golds, whereas Ahn has three golds among his four total medals.
And whatever Ahn’s medal haul will come at the expense of his birth country, which has won 37 of the 120 total Olympic medals in short track. Ahn will also achieve a somewhat dubious feat with even a single medal – becoming the first athlete to win Olympic medals for different nations (not counting countries that have reunited or disintegrated, such as Germany and Soviet Union).
Ahn, of course, isn’t the first athlete to “switch” countries in search of Olympic glory. Germany’s Johann Muhlegg famously skied for Spain in the 2002 Winter Games and won three golds after a dispute with his national federation (though the medals were all later revoked following a positive drug test). For Ahn, his decision to skate for Mother Russia instead of his mother country is much more personal.
“For me, these medals aren’t that important as such,” Ahn said on the Russian Skating Union web site. “The important thing is to feel confidence in myself again that I have returned to a winning mindset. I remembered what a difficult time after the injury I had to endure … Naturally, I felt grateful.”
His former countrymen, however, will not be charitable. In a rough-and-tumble sport where contact frequently occurs on the track (and not necessarily unintentionally), Ahn can expect a fairly icy reception, if not quite at the level displayed by his Dutch competitor Sjinkie Knegt in Dresden.
The Cold War, then, carries on at the first Winter Games to be held on Russian soil. Hostilities will resume Monday in the Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi.
Samuel Chi is the Editor of RealClearSports and RealClearWorld. His column on world sport appears every Thursday in The Diplomat.