Defection row overshadows South Korean Viktor Ahn’s skating victory for Russia
Reuters in Sochi
It was a night when Viktor Ahn should have been out celebrating becoming the most successful short track speed skater of all time but instead he was quizzed from all sides at the Sochi Olympics about why he defected to Russia.
Ahn confirmed his place among the greatest Winter Olympians when he won the 500 metres individual event then returned to the ice about 45 minutes later and helped Russia win the 5,000m relay. Ahn also won gold in the 1,000m at Sochi and now has six Olympic gold medals in total - more than any speed skater either in short track or the more traditional long course.
If the skater formerly known as Ahn Hyun-soo, who won three golds for South Korea at the 2006 Turin Olympics, thought he would clarify his position once and for all at a packed news conference starting after midnight he was clearly mistaken.
Rather than clearing up the misunderstandings, it only served to cause even more confusion as Ahn and Russian speedskating federation president Aleksei Kravtsov kept contradicting each other.
Instead of asking Ahn how he felt about winning three golds for the host nation at these Games – taking the 28-year-old’s Olympic tally to a record six golds for a short track skater – the duo were bluntly asked: “Did Russia buy Viktor Ahn?”
“Please make no illusions that Viktor Ahn was bought and that there were some commercial offers for Viktor to change his citizenship and move to Russia. No way,” Kravtsov said through a translator.
Once that was out of the way, however, it seemed the two could not agree at what point Ahn sought Russian citizenship.
“I only came to train. I had an injury so I needed people who had trust in me.”
Kravtsov remembered a different version of events.
“I want to make something clear as I don’t think Viktor was translated correctly, but from the very beginning when he came to Russia it was with the intention to perform for Russia at the Sochi Games. Men in Korea cannot have duel citizenship but women can, so it was always the case he would have to give that up.
“In March 2011, I received a letter in my mailbox at the Russian skating union. It was in English. It was from Viktor’s uncle, who is also his agent. He said Viktor wanted to train in Russia, so I invited them to Moscow and that is how it started.”
At times Ahn looked bemused at what was unfolding in front of him, but he once again he repeated: “When I started off from Korea, I did not think I would become a Russian citizen.
“But my goal was to compete at another Olympics so I took the decision and have no regrets about this.”
Before the Sochi Games, Ahn had already gone on record to say that he switched nationalities after being overlooked by the South Korean federation for the 2010 Vancouver Games.
The South Korean Skating Union (KSU) has suffered a backlash for not looking after Ahn’s interests, while the country’s government launched an official inquiry into how the skater was allowed to slip through the system and change allegiance.
The midnight press conference, however, failed to shed any new light on the matter.
What instead came out from Ahn was that he has a marriage certificate “but a wedding ceremony with my girlfriend/wife has yet to take place” and how his dad fanned controversy about his switch to Russia which led to “some conflicts with my father”.
The one thing Ahn did want to make clear though was that he did not take pleasure in seeing his former teammates fail so badly in the short track events in Sochi.
While Ahn’s medal count in Russia stands at three golds and a bronze, his male counterparts from South Korea will go home empty handed for the first time since 2002.
“I don’t want too much controversy in Korea because of me. There are so many articles comparing me with the Korean athletes. I regret that sincerely,” added Ahn, as he glided his fingers through his dyed ginger hair.
“My performance was always compared to the Korean skaters’ performance. That gave me a tough time during the Games. What fault was it of theirs? They trained very hard.
“They had tough times here and it was very difficult for me to see that.”